Where have you gone, the old-fashioned neighborhood kosher deli? Where the menu was on a grill broiling behind the front window or resting on a wooden counter behind a glass panel? Where swollen pastrami on club sandwich was wider than the aperture of our mouths. Where have you gone kosher deli? A New York senior population turns their salivating tongues for you.
In the 1940s, within three blocks, there were three kosher delis in our neighborhood. Annie’s, on Boston Road near Wilkins Avenue, Mintz on Boston road adjacent to P.S. 61 and Misek’s on Boston Road directly across the street from Hermann Ridder J. H. S. At any of these eateries, for a dime a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut was rinsed down with a bottle of Frank’s Orange or a Coke. Although they sold the same merchandise, each store had its unique character.
Annie knew the problems and joys of all her customers. Aside from her frankfurters, they knew a visit to Annie’s called for a thorough preparation of uninhibited grilling. It began with her penciled eyebrows escalating towards her scalp.
“I didn’t see you in the last two weeks. Did your wife leave you?”
“How’s your blood pressure and cholesterol? Are you taking pills?”
I stepped in one day and before I could order, the grilling began,
“Did you see, Yoneh Shimmel was caught selling trayfeh(unkosher) corned beef?t
“Who squealed on him?” I asked.
“Squeal? One look and even Alex (a neighborhood boy with Down’s syndrome) could tell it was trayf. Never mind that, maybe you know a man, a relative an alrightnikfor me?”
When Mrs. Hirsch came in Annie inquired,
“Are the kids doing better in school? I don’t think they do their homework. I see them in the street all the time.”
Annie had a booming voice that ignited her flaming red hair which was slightly rustier than the dried ketchup glued to the necks of her greasy Heinz ketchup bottles.
Her deli was situated below Bernie Heitner’s apartment building. Bernie had a big appetite and the money to support it. A visit by Bernie was an experience not to be missed. He was tall, dark and handsome. Annie’s expression of love for Bernie was the mounding of pastrami on a slice of rye bread to a point where it collapsed into a heap before the other slice of rye could cover it. While slicing the pastrami, she blasted her celebrated aria to an elderly employee waiting at the rear of the store,
“Ah porshun French for Boinard!”
“For Boinard!”were the code words to mound the fries until they overflowed the dish. With booty in hand, Bernie walked to his table leaving a trail of fries and leaves pastrami on the floor behind him.
It was the classic neighborhood deli. The counter was a small area where the customer ordered and paid for his food. The floor was white, one-inch, octagonal marble tiles hiding under a few sprinkles of sawdust. The décor was tan, plastic covered chromium chairs pushed underneath tan Formica topped 4’x 4′ square tables. In a tiny room, at the rear of the store, an elderly employee watched a charred cast iron pot partially filled with oil and a strainer sitting on a primitive oven waiting on the call, For Boinard!.
Menu? What menu? Her entire inventory was spread out before you. Peering out of the window, frankfurters were sizzling on the grill. Immediately to her right, adding to the intoxicating odor was a wooden counter that held salami, bologna, frankfurters and rolled beef. On top of the counter, on a glass shelf, a small dish, held one-inch chunks of knubblewurst resting below a sign, “A Nickle a Shtickle”—each piece, a nickle.Behind these delicacies, against a wall, a gas heated, stainless steel vat filled with boiling water held a bulk of pastrami waiting to be sliced. Could this have been the source of high blood pressure and off the chart cholesterol readings in the East Bronx?
Make a left when leaving Annie’s, walk no more than a city block along Boston Road, pass Leff’s candy store then P.S. 61 and you arrive at Mintz’ Deli. In sharp contrast to Annie’s, the store was neat; the store was quiet. A reserved and gentle couple, they were unable to generate the energy that electrified Annie’s. Mr. and Mrs. Mintz knew little about their customer’s lives. If they did, there was no inquisition. It was the type of deli where one ordered and usually took out. The-take-out-frankfurter, topped with mustard and sauerkraut was wrapped in a large sheet of white paper. Accompanied by Frank’s Orange, I ran home with my treasure. I unwrapped the mustard stained paper that insulated the frankfurter and its bun. Scooping up the loose strands of sauerkraut clinging to the paper, I was ready for the warm and delicious treat nestled inside the bun.
Make a left when you left Mintz’s, walk the block-length of Hermann Ridder J.H.S. and you arrive at Misek’s Deli. Mr. Misek was a slight, fragile man. His wife was the waitress, French-fries person and busboy. Although his store was closer to our street than Annie’s, it was magnetic Annie that drew us to her.
Eventually the Misek’s sold to the Gitelsons. This deli was to support Mr. and Mrs. Gitelson, his married son, Murray and their son-in-law, Gene. At this point, we were teenagers with a couple of coins jingling in our pockets. Our trips to the deli were more frequent.
After a weekend stickball game, Gitlelson’s was the place to review the highlights over a pastrami on club sandwich with French-fries. Independent Jerry had his usual Romanian steak smothered with fried onions. Gene, Mr. Gitelson’s son-in-law, an addictive talker, usually barged in with his unsolicited comments.
Soon, there was a classy kid moved in, Bucknoff’s. All his tables and chairs matched. He had a folded menu, daily specials and a waiter. It was neat, and it was clean. The clientele were upscale compared to our delis. For a month, this was our place for a weekend nosh. It wasn’t long before we returned to the nearby and familiar Gitelson’s, where we could step in with T-shirts, sweaty from a stickball or softball game and once again argue and listen to the pearls of wisdom rolling off Gene’s tongue.
Eventually, the neighborhood changed, the stores changed, the signs changed. Yellow, green and red signs replaced the understated deli and grocery signs. There were bodegas instead of delis. I’m sure their customers will have stories to share with their children.
Annie is gone, Mintz, Misek and Gitelson are gone, the blue and red neon Hebrew National sign is gone, but never the memories.