Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When Your Memory Serves You Incorrectly

On my recent trip to New York, I wanted to visit a few places that I had fond memories of from meals past. Carnegie Deli, a New York institution across the street from Carnegie Hall, is famous for its oversized corned beef on rye—my all-time favorite cold cut. I haven’t eaten the stuff in years, but I told myself that as a flexitarian, I was allowed to be flexible on this trip. I remember that sandwich like it was yesterday—six inches of moist, tender, red-hued meat between two slices of freshly made New York rye. It was the best and most corned beef I had ever eaten. One sandwich at the Carnegie Deli was enough animal to feed a small Jewish family on the upper East side or eight Osmonds in Utah.

While that obscene portion was part of its appeal to me back then, it seemed so wrong today. What would I do with that brine-cured half a cow on my plate? I couldn't split it with my friend because she didn't like corned beef, and our hotel room’s fridge was only a mini bar, so there was no place to keep leftovers. Should I order it anyway simply to fulfill my nostalgic longing? Should I find someone on the street to give it to? For years, I joked that when I became homeless, I was going to live in front of the Carnegie Deli in New York. But these days, wasted food is nothing to laugh about.

By now, the thought of all that luscious corned beef that had once proclaimed its succulent solidarity with my tummy was an ethically offensive, edible anachronism that should have been downsized long ago. Yet I wanted that delicious memory back—politically incorrect or not. It was more than just a meal. It conjured up a time and place. I remember how an old friend of mine had seen Woody Allen there in the 80s when we were both huge fans, and it was so exciting. Woody and the Carnegie Deli were like two pieces of gefilte fish in the same jelly.

Now my corned-beef averse friend and I walked over to the Carnegie to have a look. Not only was it smaller and dingier than I remembered, the smell and temperature inside made us both nauseous. It felt like we were locked in a sauna with some knockwurst. And even though the huge New York cheesecakes in the window still looked amazing, we decided to leave. Maybe that's all I needed to be awakened from that glossy memory to my current reality. But now where will l live if I ever become homeless? A shed in the garden at Chez Panisse in Berkeley might be nice. But I hear their portions are on the small side.


  1. I would definitely pitch my tent in the garden at Chez Panisse - excellent choice! A toss up between that and the garden at the French Laundry, though (but I think Thomas Keller might be less sympathetic).

    I live in NYC and haven't been to Carnegie deli since I was a kid; from what I hear, Katz's is the only place to go for corned beef these days.

  2. Hi Nancy. I heard and read about Katz's and thought about going there but ended up having no deli food at all. I did go to the Green Market in Union Square. I also thought about putting the French Laundry instead of Chez Panisse. We must be on the same wavelength!

  3. How truly sad your memories of times now past got flushed down a NY toilet.