The famous, albeit unglamorous, Katz’s. Photo: Thomas Hawk, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.
Earlier this week I came across an article in the NY Times about the challenges facing the current owner–and descendant of the original owner–of Katz’s delicatessen in New York City. The oldest deli in the city. That alone earns it “icon” status.
I was born in Manhattan. My father was born in what he called Russia but what is now known as Ukraine. He came through Ellis Island just before World War I with his mother and younger sister. His father had already emigrated and was living on the Lower East Side. My mother and father didn’t have my brother and me until very late in life.
Pastrami or corned beef on rye a la Katz’s Delicatessan. Photo: Al Scandar Solstag, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.
Every Sunday when I was growing up, we’d visit my grandmother, or Bobbe, who was still living on the Lower East Side–and would until she died at about 90 (my grandfather had died decades before I was born). Grandma lived on Norfolk just off Delancey Street, the Lower East Side’s main drag.
My grandmother owned what was called a “candy store”–which sold magazines, penny candy, some dusty odds and ends of paper and canned goods. But the heart of the narrow, dark business was the six-seat lunch counter from behind which my Bobbe dispensed homemade chicken soup. When I was little, my aunt Jerry worked at Katz’s Delicatessan, two blocks down Delancey from Norfolk.
Back in the ’50s, NYC, like most of the country, still had “blue laws”– prohibiting most commercial and retail activity on Sunday. The Lower East Side at that time was populated overwhelmingly by Jewish immigrants and had a special dispensation to keep stores open on Sunday because virtually every store was closed on Saturday for the Jewish sabbath.
On Sundays, we’d arrive at grandma’s tenement building, climb the three flights to her apartment if Uncle Eli was minding the store, or cross the street to see grandma in the store and get served wide flat bowls of chicken noodle soup with a film of grease across the surface. Sometimes, we’d visit Aunt Jerry at Katz’s. There were delicatessans in every Jewish neighbor in those days. Katz’s was king. The wellspring.
Photo: Mike Licht, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.
Salamis hanging in the window and from the ceiling above the meat counter. Glass cases were loaded with roast beef, pastrami, knishes, stuffed derma (also known as kishka), chopped liver,and every other artery-clogging eastern European food group. We always sat at a table, the kids ordering cream sodas, the adults celery soda (I still go “yech” when I think of celery soda). Over on Second Avenue, the Second Avenue Deli dispensed dairy meals; Katz’s was the meat deli.
A few years ago, I took my son to the Tenement Museum, and then to where grandma’s tenement and store had been located (replaced with newer apartment buildings about 15 years ago).
Then, we walked over to Delancey and Katz’s. I hadn’t been there in decades and it seemed–of course–much smaller and far less impressive. But we ordered two cream sodas, and some sandwiches, and I thought of Aunt Jerry and grandma, in a neighborhood that is now predominantly Latino. Katz’s keeps the feel of my childhood alive. Iconic.
So, tell me where you grew up and what iconic businesses or buildings remain (if only in your memory).