Pastrami and Freedom
Notes from the Pandemic
When I was a teenager, my friend Phil Freshman introduced me to Jewish delicatessens, specifically to the deli generally regarded as L.A.’s best—Langer’s, on Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park in the Westlake district.
The two of us, often in the group of five friends who called ourselves the Asses Anonymous, would bus to Langer’s before or after seeing a movie in Hollywood, maybe “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Dr. Strangelove,” then settle into a booth and soak in the smell of pastrami and the sound of chaos. A gruff waitress—they always were gruff—would come by, take our orders, and distribute insults.
I probably started out ordering the Original #19, a classic sandwich consisting of Langer’s amazing pastrami on fresh rye bread with cole slaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing. Later, urged on by Phil, I added chopped liver to create a Jewish feast the thought of which to this day makes me quiver.
What does this have to do with the pandemic? The great Yvonne, quarantine menu planner to the stars, learned that the Original #19 could be mail-ordered anywhere in the U.S., even (bizarrely) Nashville, and she ordered a couple of them for Father’s Day.
I mentioned this to Phil, still a close friend now living in Minneapolis, and he was skeptical. His exact words: “How good could they be after traveling 1,500 miles? I don’t think I could eat one of those that hadn’t been made a minute or two before the first bite.”
Point taken. However, the sandwich components arrived separately, which meant we could heat the pastrami and assemble things in our own kitchen. The result? Not as good as a sandwich delivered hot off the griddle by one of those grumpy waitresses… but damn good. Fresh, even.
And, of course, along with the pastrami and other ingredients, the package delivered memories of a time when people could crowd into a deli, and teenaged kids could ride a bus across L.A. without chaperones.