It’s National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day, which is nice because it’s cold out. And it’s snowing. A tasty, hot sandwich at lunchtime is just the ticket! And besides, who doesn’t love pastrami?
Well, other than Tara, who is proving to be a much pickier eater than I’d ever imagined. But she’s being a good sport about it, and dutifully trying at least one bite of everything we have. That’s all I can ask for!
Originating just a stone’s throw from Dracula’s castle and named after the Romanian word a păstra – which means “preserve” – pastrami was created as a method of preserving meat. There were no refrigerators back then, and Transylvanian folk didn’t want all that wonderful pork and mutton to go to waste, so they cured the meat by brining it, drying it, seasoning it with herbs and spices, smoking it, and then steaming it. Pastrami was introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century following a wave of Romanian Jewish immigration to New York. The original English spelling, pastrama, was changed to pastrami in order to rhyme with salami, making it easier for American consumers to remember (and paving the way for the chart-topping 1892 rap hit, “(You Gotta) Fight For A Bite (Of Pastrami),” which famously paired verses about salami and pastrami with Tommy’s mommy, a Swami who survived a tsunami and married a commie). Because beef was cheap, they started using that instead.
A butcher named Sussman Volk claimed to have created the first pastrami sandwich in 1887 after inheriting the recipe from a Romanian friend whose luggage he was storing while the man was out of the country. Volk’s pastrami sandwich was so popular he turned his butcher shop into a restaurant. Not so fast, say the folks at Katz’s Delicatessen, which opened in 1888 and is renowned for their pastrami sandwiches (and also Meg Ryan’s famous fake-orgasm “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally). They take credit for the sandwich. No word on whether they duked it out or decided to split the royalties, but pastrami remains a popular sandwich to this day.
Although, to be honest, it proved a little tricky to find. Neither Subway nor Quizno’s has pastrami on their menu. Luckily, a local cheesesteak joint called Philly Bilmo’s does. Go figure. I ordered the Hot Pastrami and Swiss, with pickles and sauerkraut. What can I say? It was delicious! Hot and salty and flavorful. The pastrami brine is typically made with garlic, coriander, paprika, black pepper, cloves, allspice, and mustard seed, and I swear I could taste each of those ingredients in every bite. Tara took a taste, wrinkled her nose, and went back to her hot dog. That’s okay – I loved the sandwich enough for the both of us.