When it comes to the life and death of the great delicatessens of Baltimore, I am particular. I do not rate delis on such trivia as the cut of the corned beef or the aroma of the pastrami.
I speak today for the quality of the kibitz and the pungent tang of the sour pickle. Without these, you have the current situation in which our historic delis are disappearing one by one. This involves more than the loss of a hot dog wrapped in bologna with a side order of angioplasty.
No, no. The delis are a part of our tribal culture, all of us who enter with more than expectant taste buds. We also anticipate a kind of haimishe sensibility, which is vital but not necessarily tied specifically to religion.
It’s the counterman who dispenses a little philosophy while grilling your salami or the cashier who inquires about your Aunt Sophie’s recent surgery, or the cheerful banter with your lunch partner instead of someone hypnotized by his cellphone.
One afternoon a distant lifetime ago, when Lombard Street still had the hot dog aroma in its very ozone and chicken fat hanging from its fingers, I strolled past Pastore’s Italian Grocery and Stone’s Bakery, past Tulkoff’s Horseradish and Yankelove’s Poultry House with its handmade sign, “Chickens Killed While You Relax.”
Inside Jack’s Corned Beef of Lombard Street, I found the owner, Jack Goldenson, holding court as usual. He arrived from Israel in the 1960s without a penny, sleeping on New York subways for a while.
He understood the essence of a great deli: the kibitz. There, in the midst of a lunchtime crowd, he stood with his arm around a young woman. “This girl wants to get married,” Goldenson announced, taking on the persona of a male Yenta the Matchmaker.
The young lady rolled her eyes, slightly embarrassed but playing along. She looked about 30. Goldenson turned to a man with saliva dripping from one end of a long cigar. He looked about 70.
“You already married?” Goldenson asked.
“Yes, married,” the man sighed.
“That’s OK,” Goldenson said, gesturing again to the young woman. “She ain’t particular.”
Everybody laughed, including the young woman. It was the sharing of a smile, that’s all. It was a bunch of strangers finding comic common ground, pausing from the pressures of the workday to kid around for a few moments. And later, they’d share this chuckle with others, who would pass it on further still.
That’s the art of the kibitz.
It’s still there in some of the remaining delis. You walk into Attman’s on Lombard Street, and the counter gang’s back-and-forth hollering takes on a kind of jaunty rhythm, and the photos on the wall — the neighborhood in its Corned Beef Row glory years — evoke an age and tribal memory.
You walk into Lenny’s in Owings Mills, and there’s a nice give-and-take.
And yet, inevitably, the local news has been sad. Gone in the recent past are Gourmet Again, Edmart and Suburban House. On Mar. 31, Miller’s Deli will officially close after more than a half-century in business. Gone further from memory are Sussman and Lev’s, Paul’s Deli, Nates and Leon’s, and the Uptown Deli on Park Heights Avenue.
Some of us still remember Sid Mandell’s at Woodmoor Shopping Center, or Mandell & Ballow’s at the Hilltop Shopping Center a few doors down from the Crest Theatre and directly across the street from the Hilltop Diner.
Those three landmarks created an entire village atmosphere in the post-war years. The evening show would end at the Crest, and swarms of people would bolt for Mandell & Ballow’s if they weren’t crossing the street for the diner.
What taste bud memory do I treasure most about Mandell & Ballow’s? The pickles and sour tomatoes. To me, no self-respecting deli fails to put out a first-rate sour pickle. To me, that’s the number one selling point of the Essen Room in Pikesville — its pickle bar.
Without a superior pickle, how could any place call itself a first-rate deli? Maybe that’s causing the modern disappearance. Goes the pickle, goes the entire deli.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” was reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
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