It can make you meshugah.
How hard could it be to learn the origin of pastrami? After all, it couldn’t have happened that long ago. The pastrami sandwich can’t possibly be older than 140 years old. Was it created in New York by immigrant Jews? Or was it brought to New York by immigrant Jews?
Is the pastrami eaten in Sherman’s Deli the same meat as the pastrami eaten at the turn of the twentieth century in New York’ Katz’s Deli? And what is this dreck they call turkey pastrami? Who knows from salmon pastrami or tuna pastrami?
And how about those antiseptic packages labeled pastrami in the supermarket. If they ever used a cut of meat with any fat on it, the meat packer made sure to trim it away before those pristine slices ever were encased in plastic.
It can make you meshugah.
So, let’s start with the basics. After all, before we can ask where pastrami came from, it would be nice to know what it is. Pastrami is generally defined to be a cured and smoked cut of meat. Traditionally, beef navel is the meat that is used to make pastrami. I know, I know. “Everybody” knows that pastrami is just corned beef coated with spices like pepper, coriander, mustard and garlic and smoked. And “everyone” knows that corned beef is made with brisket.
It’s true, except that “everyone” who knows that is wrong. Yes, a cured, smoked brisket is called pastrami. So is a cured, smoked piece of round steak sold as pastrami. Turkey pastrami is brined, coated with spices and smoked turkey breast. Russ and Daughters, the venerable New York purveyor of cured and smoked delicacies, calls one version of their smoked salmon pastrami. Michael Roberts was the first chef to coat sashimi-grade tuna with the spices used to make pastrami. He lightly hot smoked the tuna and created tuna pastrami. Go back in time to Romania in the nineteenth century where lamb or pork meat was cured, coated with spices and smoke cooked. The treated meat was called pastrama. Armenians and Turks in the eastern Ottoman Empire cured and pressed meat to make a food called basturma.
So, is pastrami the meat? Or is it the flavoring? If pastrami is the meat, then which meat makes the real pastrami; brisket, navel or round? And is the meat beef or lamb or even goose or duck? To complicate matters further, perhaps pastrami is a process and anything edible that undergoes that process can be legitimately called pastrami.
That would be interesting. Why not make tofu pastrami? Oh, but that guru of barbeque, Steven Raichlen, provides us with a recipe just for that in his book, Raichlen’s Indoor! Grilling. Raichlen defined pastrami as a process for producing a particularly flavored product. His is a broad umbrella that covers all of the different pastrami products we know today, as well as any that might be created in the future.
While pastrami has a distinctive flavor, it is not the result of a single recipe. Different pastrami purveyors each have their own recipes. The recipes for curing the beef, while similar, are sufficiently different as to produce a unique flavor profile, especially when the cure method varies from one producer to another. Some producers dry cure their slabs of beef. Others wet cure their beef. Still other producers inject their beef with the brine. The flavor profile is made distinctive by whether liquid smoke is injected into the meat during the curing phase or whether and how long the meat is smoked after it was cured.
I once asked Norm Langer, owner of Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles, and whose father Al was the founder of one of the oldest delicatessens in Los Angeles, about his pastrami. He told me that it didn’t matter who he bought his pastramis from. His pastrami was distinctive because of what he did to the cured and smoked meat after it was delivered to him. Clearly, Langer thinks that pastrami is a process by which beef navel is transformed into the quintessential Jewish sandwich.
Since no two pastrami sellers follow the same recipe, we can accept that “pastrami” is a broad term that can include many varieties. The flavors of different pastramis will vary. The texture of different pastramis will vary. As I said, “pastrami” is a big umbrella. So, perhaps, the best way to define pastrami is to think of it as the result of a meat, fish or vegetable that is cured using a set of spices, including peppercorns, coriander and garlic and is then smoked and finally steamed. The product may be dry cured over many days or injected with a wet cure for a much shorter time. It may be injected with liquid smoke during the curing period or it may be smoked for a shorter or longer time over any one or a combination of hard woods. Finally, it may be steamed for up to six hours before it is ready to eat.
But let’s be careful. Should salmon pastrami be called pastrami? It’s a product that is cured with the spices and herbs used to make traditional pastrami. Even though we have a cured food that has a “pastrami” flavor, that isn’t enough to make it a pastrami. Corned beef is cured with spices, but not smoked and it is generally steamed before it is made into a deli sandwich. Smoking is one of the things that distinguishes corned beef from pastrami. Furthermore, gravlachs is salmon that is cured with herbs and spices, but you wouldn’t think of calling it a pastrami. Even if you smoked the cured salmon, thereby converting the gravlachs into lox, you still wouldn’t call it a pastrami. I took some lox and steamed it for 10 minutes, 30 minutes and one hour. It didn’t help the flavor and it did ruin the texture of the lox. The seasonings in the cure used to make gravlachs and lox are not restricted to peppercorns and dill. A variation using tequila and cilantro is included in many southwestern interpretations of gravlachs and lox. So, I would be more inclined to call salmon cured with the pastrami seasonings a pastramied gravlachs or a pastramied lox.
Steaming, then, is as important to the preparation of pastrami as is curing and smoking. Smoking distinguishes corned beef from pastrami and steaming distinguishes pastrami-flavored cured and smoked foods from pastrami.
There is a distinctive pastrami flavor. The primary seasonings used to produce pastrami flavor are salt, sugar, black pepper, coriander and garlic. I have seen pastrami recipes that include such spices as mace, allspice, mustard seed or red chile powder, but without salt, sugar, pepper, coriander and garlic, the meat just doesn’t taste quite like pastrami.
The role of smoking is also critical both to creating pastrami flavor and creating the texture desired for pastrami. Traditionally, pastrami was made with the tough, fatty and gristly parts of the animal because these cuts were cheap. Beef navel, also called plate meat, is the part of the steer next to and immediately behind the brisket. It is fattier, tougher and has more gristle than brisket. It was, perhaps, the cheapest, least desired piece of beef. Strangely, if we were talking about a pig instead of a cow, that same cut would be very desirable. It is called pork belly and, when we cure it and maybe smoke it, it’s bacon. And nobody don’t like bacon.
Because beef navel is not the easiest cut of meat to obtain, many pastrami purveyors start out with beef brisket. Brisket is the cut used to make deli-style corned beef. It is a tough, fatty piece of meat that is well suited to long, slow cooking. The pastrami sold in packages in super markets is more often made with round or rump roast. Super market pastramis are usually made by injecting them with brine and pastrami seasonings including liquid smoke and then boiling the whole roast before finally coating the surface with caramel and slicing it.
Whether the pastrami is made from navel or brisket, smoking the meat for a long time at a low temperature tenderizes the meat as well as flavoring it. The long, low temperature cooking process insures that the collagen in these tough cuts are converted into the gelatin that coats the muscle strands and makes the meat taste silky smooth. The long, slow cooking also helps the fat to melt and bastes the meat keeping it juicy. If you cooked a lean cut of meat like round roast for such a long time, the meat would become dry, stringy and tough.
Here, then, we can define pastrami so it is distinct from pastrami-like products. Pastrami is made from the navel or brisket of the animal. The meat is either wet or dry cured with salt, sugar, sodium nitrate, black peppercorns, coriander and garlic, and optionally, with other spices and herbs such as mace, allspice, mustard seed and thyme and rosemary. After it is cured, the meat is rubbed with cracked peppercorns and cracked coriander and smoked over hardwood at low temperatures until it is cooked through. Before it is sliced for a sandwich, the meat is steamed for two to three hours until its internal temperature reaches 209o F. At this point, it is pastrami.
You can make beef pastrami or lamb pastrami or even goose or duck pastrami. But you cannot make salmon pastrami or tuna pastrami or tofu pastrami. These are products that more or less have the taste of pastrami.
Salmon pastrami is gravlachs with pastrami seasonings. The same is true about tuna pastrami. My problem with these two dishes is that pastrami flavor is so strong and pronounced that flavor of salmon and tuna get completely lost. While salmon pastrami is now a regular product in the appetizer line of loxes, tuna pastrami is still considered to be a novelty item. Perhaps, the reason salmon works better than tuna with pastrami seasonings is that salmon is a fattier fish than tuna. Fat is important to pastrami.
I don’t know what tofu pastrami is. I made it. I tasted it. It tasted okay, but I wouldn’t put it on rye bread with deli mustard.
In my opinion, if the pastrami is lean enough and firm enough to slice with an electric slicer, it has not been cooked long enough to break down all the collagen or it is too lean a piece of meat not to be tough. Pastrami is supposed to have a silken feel and almost melt in your mouth. It should not be a chewy piece of meat.
Carnegie Deli’s pastrami sandwich consists of a pound of sliced pastrami served between two slices of double baked rye bread which were coated with deli mustard. Langer’s deli’s pastrami sandwich consists of about seven ounces of hand-sliced pastrami served between two slices of double baked rye bread which were coated with deli mustard. Most of the pastrami sandwiches made in Katz’s Deli are made with rye bread. But Katz’s also serves a pastrami club, pastrami with deli mustard served on a French club roll. Sometimes, a deli will serve pastrami on a Kaiser roll. But pastrami seems to taste best when it is paired with real rye bread.
Contrary to the bubbameise, you can put mayonnaise on a pastrami or corned beef sandwich. If you couldn’t, Arnold Reuben could not have invented the Reuben sandwich at his eponymous restaurant in New York. The Reuben is a grilled corned beef, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye bread. The primary ingredient in Russian dressing is, ta dah, mayonnaise. And, by the way, if you make the sandwich with pastrami instead of corned beef, it’s called a Rachel.
As good as the Rachel may be I still prefer my pastrami on rye with mustard. Not just any mustard. I don’t want Dijon mustard or any of the Champagne or wine mustards. I want the kind of brown mustard that traditionally appears on tables in Jewish delicatessens. On my pastrami sandwich, I want Ba-tampte mustard or Nathan’s mustard or Gulden’s mustard. I’ll even take Beaver Brown Deli mustard or Dusseldorf mustard. I don’t want French’s or Dijon or any other ordinary yellow mustard. The mustard should not be too spicy hot or too sweet. A good deli mustard enhances the sourness of a good rye bread. It complements the spicy saltiness of the pastrami.
Mark Kurlansky, in his book, Salt, wrote
Pastrami, of Romanian origin, is dried, spiced and salted beef, smoked over hardwood sawdust and then steamed. The name may come from pastra, the Romanian verb “to preserve.” (p. 404)
Other sources also indicate that pastrami probably originated in Romania and may have been a Romanian Jewish adaptation of an Ottoman preserved meat called basturma or pasturma. There is some evidence that, since beef was scarce and expensive, Jews of Romania would have made a pastrami from goose meat. The curing and smoking processes would have dealt with the preservation requirements. The smoking and steaming processes would have made the goose meat very soft and tender. Bernstein’s on Essex may have been the last delicatessen to serve goose pastrami. In all likelihood, many Romanian Jewish émigrés to America in the nineteenth century brought with them recipes for making pastrami. When they arrived in New York, they would have found that the tough, fatty beef navel was a cheaper cut of meat than goose breast. Pastrami, as we know it, was born in New York during the late nineteenth century.
Who was Sussman Volk?
Patricia Volk wrote a memoir, Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, about her family’s involvement in the New York restaurant scene. She wrote that Sussman Volk, her great grandfather, introduced the pastrami sandwich to the world. According to her, Sussman Volk was a Lithuanian Jewish émigré who operated a kosher butcher shop on the lower eastside of New York. In 1887, a friend of his came to the shop and gave Volk his recipe for making pastrami in exchange for storing his suitcase in Volk’s shop while he returned to the old country. Volk made the pastrami according to the recipe and offered chunks of the meat to his customers at the butcher shop. The customers liked the pastrami and persuaded Volk to put the meat in a sandwich. A year later, Sussman Volk converted his butcher shop into a delicatessen featuring pastrami sandwiches.
It’s a nice story. And it may be true that Sussman Volk made the first pastrami sandwich. But it is unlikely. It’s unlikely because New Yorkers in the late nineteenth century loved sandwiches of all kinds. You could walk into a saloon in downtown New York in 1887 and pay a nickel for a mug of beer. When you bought that beer, you were entitled to go over to the end of the bar and pile sliced cold meats between thick slabs of bread and eat the sandwich for free.
One of the most common ways in the late nineteenth century that Jewish émigrés to New York earned a living was to cook food and take it out to sell on the street from pushcarts. Surely, out of the thousands of Romanian Jewish émigrés, one of them would have made pastrami in his tenement apartment, prepared sandwiches and sold them on the street.
Well, maybe something can be rescued from this legend. Maybe Sussman was the first to open a delicatessen selling pastrami sandwiches. If he was, he was first by only a matter of months because Katz’s Deli also opened for business in the lower eastside in 1888.
Katz’s Deli originated in 1888 by the Lustig family. They sold the business to the Eisland brothers in 1902 who then sold the deli to Benny and Harry Katz in 1916. The Katz brothers changed the name to Katz’s Delicatessen.
So, did Sussman Volk sell the first pastrami sandwich in a deli? I don’t know. Maybe the first one was sold by the Lustig brothers in what became Katz’s Delicatessen. While Katz’s is the oldest continuously operating delicatessen, it certainly wasn’t the first deli in New York.
The first delicatessens in New York were owned and run by German émigrés, both Christian and Jewish. Isaac Gellis is generally given credit for popularizing the first German-Jewish delicatessen meats in New York. He manufactured sausages in his factory on Essex Street. Not only did Gellis produce frankfurters, salamis and other cold cuts, he also produced Romanian pastrami. When was this? Isaac Gellis was making Romanian pastrami in 1872. It is likely that patrons of many of the German-Jewish delicatessens in the lower eastside were eating Gellis’ pastrami. Might not one of those patrons have made a sandwich of pastrami using two slices of rye bread at the table?
So, there we have it. You could have eaten a pastrami sandwich in New York as early as 1872. But maybe no pushcart vendors were selling pastrami sandwiches in the lower eastside until that sandwich was created and introduced by Sussman Volk fifteen years later when he converted his butcher shop into a delicatessen. Or maybe the Lustig brothers beat out Sussman Volk and served the first pastrami sandwich in their delicatessen.
New York Jews, in 1872, had all the fixings and a love for sandwiches. I can’t believe that not one of those Jews would have waited fifteen years to eat pastrami on rye.
It can make you meshugah.