Katz’s Delicatessen, established 1888, is a theme park of Jewish-American food, with tribute gift shop, on the lower east side of Manhattan. There is nowhere more Jewish than Katz’s except Haredi Brooklyn, but if you go there you don’t come back. Katz’s offers a gentler Jewish experience, if you can conceive of such a thing, or it at least attempts it; it offers a kind of Judaism you can enjoy over lunch, which I find amazing because I have never managed it. (No one, for instance, talks about the Holocaust in Katz’s, not because they don’t want to but because they can’t. Try saying Treblinka with a dumpling in your mouth.)
Its tourist value was proven when Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in Katz’s in When Harry Met Sally to prove she was deserving of a Jewish man (Billy Crystal) with a serious case of ghetto madness, simply by sampling the cuisine; and yes, I think she was. That a tribe of this tenacity and intellectual rigour went for fish balls, salt beef (here called pastrami) and the dumplings that I suspect killed Nazis during the Warsaw ghetto uprising by sheer density remains a mystery to me; perhaps it is inverse vanity. I don’t know why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement isn’t all over Katz’s. Perhaps they like the food. Perhaps Jews appropriated the food from someone else, but I can’t think of anyone else who would admit to inventing it.
The exterior is red-brick and one storey: a diner from myth. The window display is as screamingly self-regarding as any anti-Semite would wish; Katz’s doesn’t do self-hatred and I understand this, because with a salami, where would you start? Katz is written every-where in neon, in differing sizes and fonts. It is signage for amnesiacs, by maniacs. There is merchandise in the window: baseball caps; T-shirts; candles; a history (or rather autobiography) of Katz’s; and what may be solid gold rye bread on a plinth that says ‘World Pastrami Eating Champion’.
Such is the charisma — and self-belief — of this deli, people from the midwest of America, and Japan, are queuing round the block with dazzled eyes. It is in its way like Maxim’s in Paris, and this, I think, would delight it.
Inside, it is a faded yet glittering cavern, stretching towards yet more neon signs that say Katz’s, and photo-graphs of celebrities eating, or recovering from eating, salt beef. The atmosphere is chaotic, for who can ease themselves into Jewish culture? And so there is an air of madness here; of forcing yourself into something — or something into you, in this case salt beef — before it ends. Half the queue surges for table service, which feels wrong, because it requires patience and there is none here; the other half queues again, at a long counter above which is a map of the United States of America in neon, and the famous contribution of Katz’s to the liberation of Europe, or the colonisation by Jews of the Middle East, depending on your politics: ‘Send a salami to your boy in the army’.
If you survive the queue, you fight your way to a beige plastic table with a tray holding, in my case, chicken soup and a dumpling and a salt-beef sandwich on white. Some wait, some eat; all abandon the attempt in the end. It is impossible to finish anything at Katz’s. Is it metaphor? Is American Judaism an unfinished work of art or are these sandwiches just too big? The food is huge, dense, salty and, if you care about salt beef, the very best; eating it is as powerful an act of Jewish identity as I can imagine, even as it falls apart in my hands; it feels — and this is a compliment — quite close to strangulation.
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