Iconic places of childhood

The famous, albeit unglamorous, Katz's. Photo: Thomas Hawk, via Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

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 on rye a la Katz's Delicatessan.

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.

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).


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3 Comments on “Iconic places of childhood”

  1. James M. says:

    I grew up in small towns across the southern half of Ontario. Each community I lived in or near had a place like this for me. Louis’ Hambugers was a small little hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the East End Plaza in Belleville Ontario. Louis and his wife were a kind older Greek couple. My Mom would take my baby sister and I there a couple of times a month. I don’t think I’ve tasted a hot dog that good since. Louis would sing Greek songs in a booming voice while he cooked and his wife always made a fuss over my sister and I.

    The Village Bakeshop in Orono Ontario has a lot of warm memories. We ate at their small restaurant often. The baked goods were wonderful. It was a friendly meeting place for the whole community.

    I grew up mostly in Listowel Ontario, home of Diana Sweets Restaurant, which has been open since 1928, and only renovated about twice since. It’s a combination of Lake Wobegon’s Chatterbox Cafe and Watertown’s Crystal Restaurant. Everyone of all walks of life eats breakfast and lunch there. Dinner customers are usually families or older men whose wives aren’t home to cook that night! It’s a great place to go and strike up a conversation or find out the unofficial version of anything going on in town (and I’ve heard some pretty wild rumours in there).

  2. Barb Heller says:

    The Automat!
    When I was a child, the best possible day included 1) a ride on the NYC subway, and 2) lunch at the Automat. As I recall, most items required quarters back then. It had nothing to do with flavor or quality. It was all about those little doors with the surprise food behind them.

    New York City was a safe, fun place to visit, and you could always see pizza makers tossing the dough in the front window. Huge roasts hung in deli windows, and your server would slice the beef right off it while you watched. Though I wouldn’t dream of eating it now, we’d sometimes share a cardboard take-out carton of pickled herring in sour cream.

    When the family moved to Schenectady in the early 1960’s, my father complained that you couldn’t buy a decent bagel anywhere; the newspaper was a waster of paper, and local pizza was nothing but dough. Somewhere along the way we found Gershon’s Deli, and life got better…. but I still love the Automat.

  3. Mitch Edelstein says:

    2nd Avenue Deli still exists… Two locations: located on the Upper East Side at 1442 First Avenue (corner of 75th Street) and in Midtown at 162 East 33rd Street (between 3rd and Lexington Avenues) and are open 7 days a week for all your hunger needs.

    I go once a year with an old friend and order too much food, but love it.

    The old story about Katz’s — was that two old men go in and the first asks for a glass of hot tea. The second also asks for a glass of hot tea and adds “in a clean glass”. The waiter comes back with two glasses of tea and says “Who wanted the clean glass?”

    Enough shtick — for me growing up on Kings Highway in Brooklyn the place to go was Dubrows. A cafeteria style place that had all kinds of food. I grew up on knockwurst on a roll or chopped chicken liver on rye or pumpernickel.

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