I never felt my bridge-and-tunnel status more keenly than when I undertook my first foray into midtown following last month’s attack. I walked the streets in the same daze that hit me after my mother’s death. Not ready to head downtown and face true destruction, I chickened out and tarried amidst midtown’s towers. On 57th Street I saw a spot with high ceilings, terrazzo floors, and trattoria-like tables that looked like a new Italian and wandered in without so much as glancing at the menu. I needed a place to sit and sort through my thoughts. To my amazement, a waiter soon appeared with a stainless steel bowl of pickles—the sours I dote on and kosher dills—and its twin brimming with coleslaw. I’d wandered into the new incarnation of the well-established Wolf’s Deli, moved half a block east from its old location at the corner of Sixth Avenue. It was the perfect coincidence. For me, a to-the-marrow-of-my-bones Gothamite, comfort foods are not only the Southern victuals of my race, but also the deli delights of my threatened native city. It was as though I’d been guided to what my spirit needed by some otherworldly gastronome.
I’m not a hardcore pastrami-on-rye deli diva. Rather, I delight in the mustard-topped frankfurters garlanded with tangy sauerkraut, bagels with a schmear, and burger specials that sustained my youth. So when I spied that most unkosher of delicacies, a bacon cheeseburger special with raw onion, lettuce, and tomato and choice of cheese ($10.90), I was on my way. Medium rare please. My only concession to adulthood was a glass of merlot ($6.50). I’d ordinarily never countenance such tradition flouting, but my nerves still needed settling. The sandwich arrived, a mighty mass of meat crisscrossed with char atop an even larger egg-bread roll, as pillowy as grandma’s bosom. In a time when medium rare has become as exotic as mesclun or duck confit once were, the meat was done precisely as I’d requested, its pinky midsection just slightly oozing blood. There was none of the wimping out that the surgeon general’s edicts impose on us all. I topped it with onion, slaw, thick chunks of the sour pickle that I’d sliced, and healthy slathers of mustard and ketchup, then opened wide. With the vinegar-and-mayo dressing of the slaw oozing out onto the plate, this was a two-napkin burger. It was immensely satisfying, soothing body and mind. Over the next weeks I found myself returning for more.
By the time I took a friend to sample the corned beef, I’d refined my order down to a burger with bacon and cheddar and a properly sweetened froth of vanilla egg cream ($2.95) and learned that I’d rather get my dose of chicken soup someplace where it’s got enough salt and is served by the cup—a bowl ($4.25) just interfered with my burger consumption. My out-of-towner earned his key to the city when his first utterance after maneuvering his mandibles around the tantalizing tower of mustard-daubed corned beef on rye ($9.95) was “Yum, I haven’t had one of these in ages.” I even managed to persuade him to finish his repast by indulging in the culinary nostalgia of a chocolate ice cream soda while I returned to the present with a spirit-soothing glass of shiraz ($6). As we exited to explore the wounded city, I realized that I’d learned a lesson as well. If I can’t find Mom’s fried chicken or Grandma’s greens when I need to be reassured of the continuity of my life and the values of my world, I’ll do just fine with a bacon cheeseburger medium rare and a bowl full of pickles.