Tuesday, September 12, 2023

A Philadelphia Story.

On our way back to the city from our week on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, we drove to Philadelphia--America's sixth largest city--to see my niece. Alexa is in graduate school there, getting a Master's degree in Urban Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. Go Quakers.

Unlike most graduate students--or college students, or people who don't work for themselves--Alexa has a full-load on Fridays. She hasn't manipulated her schedule to give herself a long-weekend. Instead, she has classes till almost 6PM, which these days counts as some sort of Herculean struggle--like cleaning some Microsoft calendar-mandated Augean stables.

My wife and I made it to the City of Brotherly Love around noon and since it would be six hours or so until we'd meet up with Alexa, we decided to go to Famous 4th Street Delicatessen for lunch.

Both of my parents, such as they were, and my closest family, Cousins Herb and Yetta, were from Philadelphia. My parents left in 1954 for New York. But Herb and Yetta stayed. 

They raised Cousins Lisa and Howard there. While the rest of the family moved to Boca, Howard and his family stayed in the Philadelphia environs and is there to this day.

Accordingly, I have been going to Famous' for the entirety of my life. In fact, if there were a Mount Rushmore with giant busts, not of Presidents but of corned beef sandwiches, Famous' version might occupy the place of Washington. In other words, it might be the Ne Plus Ultra of Jewish delis. 

If this post gets any sort of readership at all, there will likely be some pickled debate about all this. Someone will mention some place, like Mamala's in Boston. Or one of the two or three decent delis west of the Mississippi, but my personal Mount Corned Beef is arranged thusly, in roughly descending Order.

Not Washington. Jefferson. Teddy Roosevelt. And Lincoln.

But: Famous. Katz's. Pastrami Queen. Second Avenue.

Two things push Famous' over the top for me. Or maybe three. One is the memories of their black and white checkerboard facade, which is probably the singular culinary memory of a benighted and beaten childhood. That facade means food to me.

Two, are the desserts that look as if they have been zapped with some sort of DARPA-derived top-military secret Gamma Ray. They've been enlarged to the point where a single black and white cookie--usually with about a 3-inch diameter is at Famous' roughly the size of a monster truck tire--all without losing a scintilla of taste and flavor. As a Jew, you grow up seeing sturdy farmers in flannel, before that was ironic, holding up 72-pound Zucchini. Those specimens have nothing on Famous' desserts.

Third, there's the Smithsonian-level museum quality of the place. Nothing has changed in a century, saving for the inevitable raising of prices, which have vastly out-performed the Dow Jones Industrial Average. 

There are old cash registers, gum machines, soda fountain apparatus, faded photos of neighborhood kibbitzim and a collection of album covers that bring back memories and old one-liners in torrents like Niagara.

An old lady behind the counter told me on weekends you don't have to take a number to get into Famous'. You have to take a number to take a number to take a number, to get in. 

But I'd guess, if past is prologue, and unfortunately it is, Famous' will soon give into the pressures of modernity and contemporary tastes. Soon it will be replaced by a Tibetan all-Yak restaurant or a spiraluna restaurant or a place that serves insects, which, I'm told are good for you and high in protein, or a place that features tofu chopped liver.

It won't be long. I'll read about it in the Times. Or I'll get a phone call from Howard.

And another stalagmite of memory will crash and shatter. 

Gone with nothing left but the belchy-residue of a really good infarction.

That was delicious.


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