The line at the Carnegie Deli is already threatening to block the sidewalk and it is early yet for the Saturday crowd. Aunt Blanche and Uncle Chet are waiting in line as my husband and I walk from our hotel to meet them. Hugs and greetings are exchanged before our serious focus turns to the task of getting a table. A little jostling brings the four of us to a rear table sandwiched between several parties of strangers lingering over blintzes and coffee. We each size up the leftovers on their plates and sit down.
"What can we eliminate?" says Chet as he studies the extensive menu famous for gargantuan proportions of old fashioned deli food. I have learned from experience that I should only come to places like this with someone like Uncle Chet. You see, he eats like a professional.
The thick glasses that magnify his already mischievous eyes, the deadpan expression just waiting to deliver the punch line, the flat tones of his New York accent, the small frame that has softened around the middle and at the edges with the passing of seventy plus years: all this normal looking exterior camouflages a man with awesome capacity and an indomitable joie de vivre. Chet is a no-holds-barred-wouldn't-be-caught-dead-in-tourist kind of guy, filled to the brim but always reaching for just a little more. Inevitably, his pleasure spills over and touches those lucky enough to be around him.
I've always admired people like Uncle Chet, envious of those who go to wine tastings and can still make lucid conversation even after the last glass of sauterne. I long to be able to down mega slices of mile high pie after a feast of barbecued shrimp and roasted oysters and corn on the cob. But alas, those of us who are more grazers than gluttons have learned instead to cultivate friends who are "enablers", seeking the perfect Epicurean co-dependency.
With Uncle Chet, I've found a match made in heaven. I can always depend on him to order the foie gras while I pick the heart healthy appetizer. Or captured by the celebratory mood that sweeps about the table when dining with Chet, I casually mention the double Varohna chocolate soufflé as if I ate one everyday. He takes the bait, orders two and lets me eat all I can. There's probably a self help group for our kind, but I've never seriously considered giving up the habit.
The waiter brings a bowl of pickles, both full and half cured and we dig in. "Since I got pregnant, I knew I'd have to come here to get the right pickle", I laugh as I crunch into a mammoth specimen. "That pickle could MAKE you pregnant", comments Chet without missing a beat or a bite.
Our waiter returns and Chet begins ordering. "Pastrami and tongue and Swiss on toasted rye, an order of potato pancakes, applesauce AND sour cream, an order of stuffed cabbage, a deli platter with whitefish salad, chopped liver and coleslaw, a corned beef sandwich, a bowl of matzoth ball soup," he starts. By now we have captured the attention of our table mates who, just rising to leave, stop their talk and stare as we proceed down the menu. The waiter, keeping up a lively banter while writing our order, urges them to sit down and watch. "You don't want to miss this," he urges. By now, the waiter's experience tells him instinctively that he is in the presence of a world class eater. They sit back down. Chet finishes with, "An order of blintzes, bagels with nova, tomatoes and onion, a side of kugel, a couple of black cherry sodas and we'll hold off on dessert until later".
The food arrives in waves, the waiter having recruited reinforcements to help make a place for all the dishes. In the shadows a cook edges along the wall to the back of the room just to see who ordered all the food. We generously offer some to our neighbors who have given us some table space. Then we begin. We all know what the rules are and take liberty with the food no matter who it happens to be sitting in front of. Arms reach, plates empty, the pace only slowing while we wait for mustard. Finally, we stretch back to take a breather while the empty plates are removed. All in all, a good meal we decide, though the potato pancakes were a little heavy. We discuss the merits of coarsely or finely grated potatoes and the ideal depth of the frying oil. Our neighbors rise and offer a brief round of applause before leaving.
Chet picks out some cheesecake to sample and adds, "Four forks, please", as Blanche orders coffee. "Do you have any Sweet 'n Lo?" she asks, "I'm on a diet." At this, the waiter just breaks up completely and repeats, “She’s on a diet,” to everyone within earshot. "Yes, we'll take the remaining half of the corned beef and a pickle for intermission at the matinee", I add, always ready to think about the next meal. We head for the door stopping briefly by the front counter to extend thanks to the galley cooks. And walking with the slow self satisfied walk of athletes spent in competition, we gather outside before parting and quietly make a date for dim sum tomorrow in Chinatown.