I didn't expect to be so moved when I walked into the Second Avenue Deli for a preview "friends and family" meal last night, but I have to admit my eyes welled up with tears when I saw Jack Lebewohl, brother of Second Avenue Deli founder, the late Abe Lebewohl, standing by the door. I guess I didn't realize how much Abe and his deli had meant to me.
When I was a teenager going to the Fillmore East as often as I could, the Second Avenue Deli was my stop for comfort food before the show. When I first came to New York to live after college, the Second Avenue Deli became one of my go-to spots for shelter from the city's storm. Full disclosure: Before I ever wrote about food, when I wrote about music and promoted jazz concerts, I made a little money writing copy for the Second Avenue Deli mail-order catalog (I'm responsible for coining the phrase "give the gift of noshing").
That's when I first got to know the Lebewohl family. Abe was a larger than life figure, a complicated, passionate man with a heart and spirit the size of the city he loved. Abe had strongly held opinions about everything; politics, Yiddish theater, and mushroom barley soup. Abe made all of New York City into a small town. Striking workers walking the picket line in the dead of winter found Abe driving up in his truck dispensing coffee and hot soup, no charge. News crews staking out a story were greeted the same way. Abe's generosity of spirit did not discriminate. If somebody needed sustenance anywhere in the city, Abe would provide it.
When Abe died, the victim of a senseless unsolved homicide eleven years ago, it seemed as if a part of the city's spirit died with him. The Second Avenue Deli had become much more than a deli. With its multi-ethnic work force dishing out bowls of Jewish penicillin, crinkle-cut french fries, and advice in equal amounts, the Second Avenue Deli had come to symbolize the "gorgeous mosaic," that was the city, as former New York city mayor David Dinkins had described it. The deli kept on going with Jack at the helm, but the deli and the city weren't the same without Abe. When it closed three years ago I thought it was gone forever.
So last night, to see the Second Avenue Deli resurrected, as a living, breathing tribute to Abe's indomitable spirit, I was moved, to say the least. Jack and his son Jeremy had somehow managed to round up just about the entire old crew. As Jack told me and my friends, "When we first started calling around to everyone who had worked at the Deli, they all said that they didn't care about the money, that of course they would come back to work with us. And then they started calling their friends from the deli, and before we knew it just about everyone had come back."
My wife and our friends Tom and Joan were all caught up in the emotion of the moment even before the food began arriving at our table: matzo ball soup fragrant with fresh dill, chopped liver, gribenes (fried chicken skin with onion remnants), fine pastrami (and excellent hot dogs) cured and smoked at Empire Provisions in Williamsburg, corned beef just about as good as I remembered it, egg barley better than my grandmother ever made, excellent cole slaw, and the metal dish of pickles that let us know we were in a quintessential New York deli.
I asked about the french fries (the crinkle cut french fry cutter was in the basement apparently resting until the deli's official opening on Monday) and the mushroom barley soup, two other Second Avenue Deli signature dishes. Jeremy said that, too, would be on the menu on Monday, and yes he was going to use Abe's recipe that called for dried porcini mushrooms. To prove the point he came over to our table a few minutes later and deposited two dried porcini mushrooms. That's just what Abe would have done, I thought to myself.
The only thing missing was Abe himself. Then I looked around and realized that Abe was all around us, in the matzo ball soup, the egg barley, the corned beef and pastrami, the dried porcinis, and the smiling faces and the non-stop energy of the reconstituted Second Avenue Deli crew. Abe would have loved every minute of it. I know we did.
The Second Avenue Deli is officially reopening this Monday. The mushroom barley soup and the french fries will be on the menu.
162 E. 33rd Street (b/n Lexington and Third Aves.) New York, NY 10016 Ph: 212-677-0606
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