new york, part six: i’ll have what she’s having

Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life. 

Irving Berlin

The back story:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

As we made our way to the Lower East Side, Katie asked me to tell her the story again. “About how Daddy ordered cheese on his corned beef and how Papa said …” she giggled, “well, you know what Papa said.”

And so I told her, yet again, about the first time that Luau met my dad. About how we’d gone to Katz’s Delicatessen, the place of so many childhood memories, and how her Daddy had committed the cardinal sin with my New York Jewish father – ordering a corned beef on rye … with muenster and mayonnaise. I told her how the waiter had said, “Are you sure?” and how my father had looked at me, his disgust greatly exaggerated for comic effect, and said, “What the %$&! is the matter with this guy?”

“And then he ordered a chocolate milk!” she said. “Tell that part.”

I laughed. “Yup, he then ordered a chocolate milk,” I said. “I thought Papa was going to have a heart attack.”

As the cab pulled up to the curb and I paid the fare, the memories rushed back. Coming in on a Sunday, my dad asking the deli man for extra lean pastrami for his daughter and the deli man stopping in the middle of the chaos to peer over the counter and say, his voice dripping with disdain, “LEAN? She’s not from around here, is she?”

The sounds and the smells, God the smells – the half-sours and the pickled tomatoes, the kasha knishes, the salami, the pastrami, the corned beef. And the cacophony of voices, all vying to be heard – the deliciously guttural sounds of New York, the babies crying, the moms shushing, the old men arguing — always arguing.

Katie looked up at the old red sign, unchanged since the days that my memories were new. “Is this it?” she asked. It was indeed.


{image is a photo of Katie standing on the sidewalk in front of Katz’s Delicatessen}

Once inside, we decided to wait for table service rather than fight to be heard at the counter. With neither of us over five feet tall, it wouldn’t be quite as easy as it had been with my dad. Truth be told, I didn’t want to revisit the pressure I’d felt as a kid to order quickly or get the %$#& out of the way.


{image is a photo of the menu, on which is printed, “Ask for mayo at your own peril.” Clearly we had to take a picture for both my dad and Luau.}

Katie was completely overwhelmed by the menu. She asked what I thought she should order. I suggested the classics – pastrami or corned beef, maybe the brisket, but told her that no matter what she ordered, she really had to get an egg cream. She asked what an egg cream was and I realized how much work I’ve yet to do before sending this kid out into the world. I assured that I’d order myself a Dr Brown’s cream soda that I’d happily trade if she hated it.

“No matter what it says on the menu, there are essentially three choices for drinks here,” I said. “Chocolate egg cream, Dr Brown’s cream soda, and Dr Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. That’s pretty much it.”

She ordered a towering corned beef sandwich and I got a mound of chopped liver the size of my head on a bagel. The waiter decided we needed fries and made it clear that he wasn’t really asking us if we wanted them, but was telling us that we did. We ordered the fries.

Katie made it about an eighth of the way through the corned beef. In part because there was enough in the plate to feed a family of four and in part because she kept “helping” me with my chopped liver. “Holy cow, that’s good,” she said at least four times. I couldn’t argue; it was fantastic. And God knows I had plenty to share. She devoured the egg cream. She hated the pickled tomato but loved the half-sour.

With an eye on the time, we asked for the check. We had somewhere to be.


{image is a photo of Katie in front of Russ’s and Daughters}

The other half of the Katz’s story was always Russ’s and Daughters. When I was a kid, there was simply never one without the other. After Katz’s, we’d walk half a block to the left, my mouth watering with every step. Inside, we’d walk past the displays of whitefish and sable, the iridescent pearls of caviar and the paper-thin slices of lox glistening with oil. We weren’t there for the fish, but for the candy.


{image is a photo of chocolate lentils}

The order never changed – rum cordials, jelly rings, chocolate lentils and marshmallow twists. I hated the rum balls and wasn’t a fan of the jelly rings, but oh, how I loved the dusty pastels of the chocolate lentils and the soft, sweet joy of the marshmallow twists. I’d order both cherry and vanilla, then play a game, staring at the identical chocolate sticks trying divine which flavor was which. I’d close my eyes to see if I could tell the difference, and then try to decide which to eat first and which to savor.


{image is a photo of jelly rings and chocolate twists from Russ’s and Daughters website}

While the outside of the store looked remarkably similar to the window of my memory, gentrification had apparently snuck in and deposited an espresso machine and biscotti before he left. Nonetheless, there they were behind the glass (and across from the sable, whitefish, lox, and caviar) – every one of the candies of my youth. I pointed to the rum balls. “I never actually liked those,” I said. “Papa made me try them every time, but I hated them.”

“We’re getting them,” said Katie. “We’re getting everything you got when you were little.” I kissed her head and ordered the rum balls along with the jellies, lentils and twists. I was shocked when our entire order came to $4.38.

We walked outside and I asked where she’d like to go. “Here,” she said, pointing to a bench in front of the store. “Right here.”

We sat down and watched the city.


{image is a photo of Katie digging into her candy on a bench in front of Russ’s and Daughters}

She tore into the bag, trying the rum cordials first. She made the face that I would imagine one would make upon discovering they were eating poop. “This is AWFUL,” she said. I shrugged. “I told you I didn’t like them.” I popped one into my mouth thinking that perhaps it was an adult thing. Nope. I made my own poop eating face and agreed.

Next, she tried the jelly rings. “Meh,” she said. “Not terrible, but I wouldn’t go out of my way for them.” I tried one and told her I didn’t think it was even worth the effort it took to chew it.

Next up were the lentils. She reached into the bag and pulled a couple out, holding them in her palm. I smiled, the dusty pastels bringing me back. She tried one and smiled. “THIS,” she said, “I love.”

I took a couple and popped them in my mouth only to grimace. “These are MINT,” I said.

She smiled. “I know! Aren’t they great?”

“I hate mint,” I said. “This is like eating toothpaste. Chalky toothpaste.”

She laughed and clutched the bag. “Good,” she said, “more for me.”

I grabbed a marshmallow twist and held it out in my palm. “What color,” I asked, “pink or white?”

She stared hard at it. “Dunno,” she said, “bite it.”

Um, ok. So much for that.

We sat for a few minutes, watching and listening, quietly taking it all in. “We have a couple of hours left before the train,” I said. “Where do you want to go?”

With all that we’d done in the past 24 hours, there was still so much yet to do, yet nothing left that we had to do. It was perfect, but I felt a little lost.

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “I really just want to sit here for a while. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

I surveyed the view – East Houston Street, torn up amid a massive construction project, a steam pipe belching steam, workers yelling at one another, someone throwing, someone catching,  a cracked sidewalk, a motley collection of apartment buildings and old store windows, many desperately in need of update or repair.

“Really?” I asked.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, making it clear that it was no longer a question. “Let’s just sit.”

And so we did. We sat and ate our chocolate lentils and marshmallow twists from Russ’s and Daughters, taking in the scenery at the intersection of my childhood and hers.

To be continued.

5 thoughts on “new york, part six: i’ll have what she’s having

  1. So many memories that you revisited and Katie will have for the rest of her life. She’s right, it’s was beautiful!

    Love you,

  2. Our family’s deli of choice was always Ratner’s, it had to be Ratner’s, but oh god, the memories… the pastrami… And FAO Schwartz, and the TKTS booth, and… It’s been several decades since I left New York and now that I have no more family there I never get the chance to get back to the city when I do come to the US. I cannot even tell you how much I enjoyed sharing your walk down memory lane.

  3. Katz’s was a constant and consistent part of my childhood. About two years ago I brought my boys for their first time, they have fallen madly in love. Begging to take the 2+ hour drive for the Reuben’s, knishes, pickles- and fries!!! Yay, yum, it’s out of control!!

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