For this committed carnivore, watching the deli dude slice the soft, rose-hued corned beef was a lot like ogling lesbian porn. My pulse quickened, pupils dilated, sweat slicked my brow. I reached deep into my pants and pulled out my fat, bulging… wallet.
Damn, David’s Brisket House (533 Nostrand Ave. betw. Herkimer St. & Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, 718-783-6109), you drive me crazy. For a half decade, I’ve been hitting this first-rate Jewish deli, which soldiers on in Caribbean Bed-Stuy like a reminder of an earlier, yarmulkewearing era. David is long gone, replaced by Muslim ownership. It sounds like a Borscht Belt joke (“A Jew and a Muslim walk into a deli…”), but it’s all kosher. Muslims are stricken from feasting on swine. Luckily, cows are the building blocks of David’s daily made corned beef, pastrami and brisket. Briny, tender, fatty, peppery, savory—name the adjective, it’s applicable. Hell, if you cinch your eyes and whistle a klezmer tune, you might envision that the meaty masterminds are men named Abe and Moe.
Today, I’ve taken my friend Dave to David’s. It was his virgin voyage. He ordered corned beef. Me, brisket. We watched rapturously as the counterman built our sandwiches to Empire State heights. Bread? Rye. Mustard? Yes. Mayo? Mayo?!
I gasped. Dave, a native West Coaster, nodded. “Yes, please,” he said, words that made me reevaluate our friendship. “No mayo, only mustard,” I said, changing his order. “You have so much to learn about condiments,” I said, keeping eagle eyes on the sandwich to ensure only brown mustard marred the pink flesh.
I have no hard feelings about mayo.
In fact, the creamy condiment is the reason I even have a girlfriend. About five years ago, my friends and I ganged up for the Idiotarod, a shopping-cart race in which drunk humans act as sled dogs. Our team was the Mayo Clinic, and we were despised. That’s because we flung mayonnaise willy-nilly, coating contestants’ carts, clothes and hair with Hellmann’s. It was terrible—and terribly hilarious.
A few weeks later, I was dining at Pacifico after a Jonathan Ames reading. Across from me sat a couple of girls, one blond, one brunette, discussing the Idiotarod. “Hey, I did that too,” I said, trying my hand at dinner conversation.
“Oh, what was your team?” the blond asked, batting her blue eyes.
“We were the Mayo Clinic.” “We hated you,” she said. And that, dear readers, was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
But while mayo has brought me love, it brings little to sandwiches. It’s little more than a lubricant, the K-Y Jelly of the condiment world. If moisture is needed, give me a splash of olive oil, or maybe mustard. Ketchup? Keep it. I learned my lesson long ago.
I must’ve been around 10 or 11, in New York for the third or fourth time. My family and I were visiting my grandparents, who lived in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Hunger hit. We stopped at a hot dog shop, and my parents sent me in to secure the frankfurters. Big man! Big man in a big city! I ordered griddle-crisped dogs, then painted narrow, ruler-precise stripes of ketchup. I brought the wieners outside. My parents looked at me as if I presented them dog shit on a bun.
“You can’t have ketchup on a hot dog,” my dad said. I was confused. Every kid in my suburban-Ohio elementary school coated hot dogs in Heinz 57. “Ketchup goes on a hamburger,” my dad instructed, “while you can only have mustard on a hot dog.” He sent me back inside to remove the tomato-based topping and replace it with a lonely yellow streak. It was embarrassing. It was instructive.
“I don’t remember that happening,” my dad will doubtlessly complain after reading this column. He often says that. But as a doctor, he should remember that though he can’t recall every incision, his patients remember every scar.
But hey, save your hankies and psychotherapy for someone else. Matters of taste are as much a product of nurture as nature. Who would I be if I didn’t grow up smearing mustard on Hebrew National hot dogs? Or if meatloaf decorated our dinner tables instead of fiery Thai curries and stir-fries with tofu and fermented black beans? I eat, therefore I am.
As for the case of Dave at David’s Brisket, his empty plate told me he didn’t miss mayo too much.