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In Pursuit of Pastrami

by Paul Somers

According to Ancestry.com, my family tree is classified FBI (full blooded Irish). And, in spite of evangelical preachers' claims of the prophet Jeremiah's sneaking a daughter of King Zedekiah of Judah (his sons had been murdered by Babylonians) into Ireland, where she married Irish King Herremon, I cannot claim any relationship to this Hebrew/Hibernian coupling. Therefore, my fondness for pastrami probably originated with my upbringing in Chicago.

pastrami Maybe it springs from closeness with my preschool playmate Jerome Brown who lived in the apartment building next door to my early home at 7947 Ellis. It was Jerome who introduced me to differences in ethnicity when he explained to me why he would not be accompanying me to St. Francis de Padua grade school in September.

Or, maybe it was from attendance at brises, bar mitzvahs (or is it bars mitzvahs?) or weddings of Jewish friends. I can't tell, but my longing definitely originated during my Chicago days.

Local availability of honest-to-goodness pastrami has been virtually unknown during my subsequent 65 years' residence in Champaign, IL, so my indulging has been limited to my occasional visits to Cook and Lake Counties and my one visit to New York City.

I have never owned an "I (heart) NY" sweatshirt, but some years ago, when a must-attend realtors' convention forced a trip to the Big Apple, I did look forward to a visit to the Stage Deli. As I stood in line, I could see the manufacture of Stage's version of a pastrami sandwich. Time may have clouded my memory, but I have recollections of a bun with over five inches of meat being prepared by the sandwichmakers. When my turn came to be waited on, I ordered a pastrami on an onion roll and a second sliced roll. When served, I transferred half the pastrami to the second roll, which I wrapped in wax paper (in those days) and stuck it in my pocket.

To date myself, I will tell you that when dinner was announced that evening on the Ozark flight home, I withdrew and unwrapped my second sandwich. The aroma of pastrami filled the cabin, and regular Ozark passengers squirmed around to see what marvel the airline had planned for their dining pleasure. It was almost embarrassing to enjoy my sandwich, while my fellow passengers feasted on rubber chicken and scalloped potatoes. I have never flown to and from New York again, but I would not inflict such punishment on fellow travelers if I did.

pastrami sandwich Around Chicago, I have acquired a reputation as the grim reaper of pastrami purveyors. Looking back, I can remember regular visits to Braverman's on North Avenue. One day, I took my friend Jim McDonald (a lifelong downstater) to this pastrami palace for lunch. He was a little too timid to go for pastrami, but he ordered a corned beef on rye which he pronounced "delicious." He was so impressed, in fact, that he wanted to take a corned beef sandwich home to his wife, Mary, but when he ordered one, he was told they were out of corned beef—at only 1:15 p.m.! The counterman informed Jim that the restaurant had recently been sold to a Gentile owner, who intentionally ran out of corned beef each day so that customers would be forced to order other menu items. Why was I not surprised to see a "for rent" sign in Braverman's window by the time of my next visit to the city?

On another trip to the northland, I visited my friend, Joe Mulrooney, who worked for Marathon Oil and was headquartered in Hinsdale. When I stopped by his office, he suggested that we go to a deli in nearby Lyons. Lyons had always had a bit of a shady reputation, but, I figured that Joe would not lead me astray, so we were off to Stein's. The elder Mr. Stein greeted us and assured me that they cured (or whatever you do to it) their own pastrami. It was delicious. But, after a few years of my periodic patronage, Mr. Stein died, and his sons did not want to work that hard, so the deli closed.

This brings me to Manny's on Jefferson near Roosevelt Road in central Chicago. This outstanding eatery serves the tastiest pastrami I have ever eaten in the Chicago area, and its clientele is a cross section of Chicago citizenry— policemen, firefighters, insurance premium collectors, shoe and clothing salesmen, bookies, and street types (how they are all able to afford the prices mystifies me).

My visits there are frequent enough that the sandwich maker recognizes me and immediately prepares my usual order of pastrami on an onion roll (which he considers to be blasphemous—the onion role, not the pastrami).

A few months ago, The New Yorker magazine published a surprisingly positive article on Mayor Richard Daley II. It included a half-page photo of His Honor eating lunch at Manny's. A close examination of his plate revealed a pastrami on rye. Right on, Mr. Mayor!

Paul Somers is a freelance writer living in Champaign, IL.


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