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A Near-Death Sandwich

I’m often asked what was the highlight of writing my book Save the Deli. What’s the best Jewish deli I ate in; where did I discover the tastiest pastrami sandwich; who is the most interesting deli owner I met? So … Read More

By / October 14, 2009

I’m often asked what was the highlight of writing my book Save the Deli. What’s the best Jewish deli I ate in; where did I discover the tastiest pastrami sandwich; who is the most interesting deli owner I met? So far, no one’s asked me about my worst experience…the low point of Save the Deli.

It occurred as I drove between Kansas City and Denver in the middle of February, 2007. I wanted to sample fast food’s take on Jewish deli and so I’d pulled over for lunch at an Arby’s and ordered their version of a Reuben sandwich. On the menu picture, it looked to be the most perfect Reuben ever…thick slices of swirly marble rye, moist pink meat folded gently like fine satin drapes, a corner of Swiss poking over the edge with its telltale holes, a little garnish of sauerkraut and a few droplets of Russian dressing. Peeling back the paper wrapper, I saw an entirely different sandwich. The intricately layered folds of corned beef were in fact a squished pink mass, still sizzling from a nuking in the microwave. My crisp marble rye had become two slices of good old-fashioned white bread with some food dye. The sauerkraut limped sadly into the oozing mass of processed "Swiss"; a slice of white American cheese poked with decorative holes…about as Swiss as a North Korean watch. It looked small, dismal, and loveless. The only thing abundant was the Russian dressing, which oozed out of the sandwich each time I pressed down.

I raised the sad sandwich to my lips and bit in.

Nothing.

I tasted nothing.

Here’s what 308 grams of nothing tasted like; bread that was made from flour so milled, bleached, treated, and packed with preservatives for an extended shelf life that it had the texture of a foam mattress. The cheese was a saline mix of melted plastic and sugar. The sauerkraut could have been shredded newspaper. I tasted the water that had been injected into the corned beef to increase it’s yield, the pasty skin from the vacuum tumbler, and the overly salty brine that permeated it. It was corned beef only in name. I doubt it even came from a brisket. As I drove west into dark clouds, sleet turned to slush, slush to freezing rain, freezing rain into snow, until the whole of I-70 became a blinding white panorama. I saw an accident emerge from the weather and slammed on the brakes. My car slid sideways at 55 mph and then careened off the icy road. Right before I slammed into a snowbank (harmlessly), my obituary flashed before my eyes: "Jewish deli expert found dead with a digested Arby’s Reuben sandwich."

I recovered from the accident, but that sandwich haunts me to this day.

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