New York Press' Gut Instinct: Where's the (Kosher) Beef?

Given the manhood-shriveling weather last weekend, I would've happily cocooned myself at home had I not been tasked with ferrying 25 folks on a journey to intoxication. I was slated to lead another homebrew tour, wherein I usher attendees to three different area brewers' homes. There, everyone meets the beermaker, samples the liquid wares and, as the afternoon wears on, listens to me slur.

"Is it OK for tour guides to be drunk?" I asked my friend Matt, a licensed New York City guide. "It might be frowned upon," replied Matt, who, in a reversal of roles, was taking my tour. "Maybe it'd be a good idea to eat a big lunch beforehand."

This was easier said than done. The tour's first stop was Marble Hill, in the Bronx. It was once the northernmost neighborhood on the isle of Manhattan till the Harlem River was rerouted, thus attaching a chunk of the 212 to the 718. I asked the Marble Hill brewer for a lunch recommendation. "Unfortunately, Marble Hill is not known for its cuisine," he wrote. "You basically have three options: Arturo's Pizzeria, McDonald's or Applebee's. If you are down for crap food, then those are your best bets."

I've devoured my share of crappy grub, but I prefer to be totally trashed before I shove a Big Mac into my mouth—it's shame food, best forgotten by morning. I decided to spread my lunchtime search farther afield, to neighboring Riverdale. My dad grew up in the heavily Jewish 'hood and as a kid, my clan took numerous pilgrimages to Riverdale to visit my Grandma Helen and Grandpa Moses' apartment, where I ate garlic-studded roast beef and fork-tender brisket and drank tons of Tropicana orange juice. It was my grandfather's favorite drink, and in time it became mine. In the case of nature versus nurture, my preference for pulpy OJ is clear-cut.

My grandmother passed away in 1985, my grandfather in 1991. I have not returned to Riverdale since. Without familial love to lure me to the Bronx, the neighborhood became a dim, distant stop on the Metro-North, seemingly on another continent. Heck, I've been to Beijing twice since I last visited Riverdale. But that's another tale, another time.

After some Internet sleuthing, Matt uncovered Liebman's Delicatessen (552 W. 235th St. betw. Oxford & Johnson Aves., Bronx, 718-548-4534), a circa-1953 Jewish deli located a 20-minute walk from the Metro-North stop at Marble Hill. "See, I could do this food write-y thing," Matt said. "And today I'm the tour guide," I replied, as we arrived in Marble Hill. Some neighborhood names refer to a distant past. For instance, Greenwich Village was once a rural hamlet. Brooklyn's

Boerum Hill refers to the Boerum family's colonial farm. But Marble Hill remains, most definitely, hilly. When we reached Riverdale Avenue, we huffed up what felt like a 45-degree incline—dozens of kids were sledding down the abutting Ewen Park, screaming whee and glee.

We arrived at Liebman's, panting and sweating beneath bulky clothes. The restaurant's name was illuminated in red neon, and through the plate-glass window I watched kosher hot dogs grow plump and blackened-crisp on the grill. After sliding past grandparents purchasing cold cuts and salads, we slid into a booth and perused the menu. Like a good Jewish deli, Liebman's crafts its own knishes, corned beef and pastrami: my holy trinity of kosher cuisine.

Unlike other Jewish delis (namely Katz's and Carnegie), only the food, not the prices, will cause a heart attack. A pastrami on rye runs $9.99, and a buck-fifty will super-size the sandwich to a half-pound of flesh. "Should I get it overstuffed?" I asked the waiter. He sized up my 5-foot 4-inch, 140-pound frame. "Not you," he said. "You'll be fine."

I settled on pastrami. Matt opted for a brisket-pastrami combination. We both received a complimentary mountain of coleslaw and a platter of pickles, a mixture of half-sour and sour pickles so profoundly garlicky, they'd stop the Twilight vampires at 50 feet. The coleslaw was also winningly crisp, not a gloppy nightmare. And the sandwiches? Though the rye bread wasn't as pungent as I prefer, the thinly sliced meats were masterpieces of beef, tender and peppery and fatty in all the right places. With a smear of coarse-ground mustard, and sips stolen from Matt's can of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, my sandwich disappeared on the double.

I patted my belly, full and round, an impregnable fortress against the boozy onslaught to come.

Read--and vote for--the original story on the New York Press website!

Gut Instinct: Provision Quest

This is not me. But there's something hi-larious about a hippie stuffing a turkey. Agree?

I awoke the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at dawn, girded for battle. “Baby,” I told my just-roused girlfriend, waving Gorilla coffee beneath her nose like smelling salts, “lace up some sneakers. We’re going on a provision quest.”

While the “black” Friday following Thanksgiving is the Super Bowl of consumerism, with bargain-crazed shoppers stampeding for $29 TVs, the day preceding Thanksgiving is equally madcap for cooks sourcing last-minute stuffing. Let’s call it Hungry Wednesday. I’ve long avoided Turkey Day shopping by celebrating Thanksgiving in Dayton, Ohio, leaving culinary acquisitions to my parents. But last year, my clan decided to break bread in Brooklyn. At my apartment.

My girlfriend, who likes nesting as much as a robin in spring, thrilled at the prospect: “Now we can get new plates, and knives, and a dining-room table, and a couch, and a tablecloth, and…” “What about the turkey?” I asked, getting to the meat of the matter.

“I’m a vegetarian,” she said, perusing the Web for white plates.

“Then what about carrots and other vegetables?” “That,” she said, clicking on an ad for Martha Stewart–brand dishes, “is your job.”

Harnessing the anal-retentiveness that compels me to scrub our toilet with a toothbrush, I sourced all the supplies a week in advance. Then I successfully navigated the cold recesses of a turkey’s cavity—nice meeting you, neck and giblets!—and concocted potato sides that had diners beside themselves.

“It’s so nice not to cook,” my mom sighed, as blissfully as if she’d received a three-hour massage. “We should do it again next year.”

And so, 364 days later, my girlfriend and I rode a rickety 2 train to the Upper West Side. Hacking bronchitis had kept me from grocery shopping, so nearly every ingredient had to be bought on Hungry Wednesday.We began at Fairway (2127 Broadway, betw.W. 74th & W. 75th Sts., 212-595-1888) for Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and brown sugar, fighting through throngs with baguettes wielded like swords.Then we beelined up Broadway to Jewish-food emporium Zabar’s (2245 Broadway, at W. 80th St., 212-787-2000).Why visit the land of lox? Because corned beef and pastrami are integral to the Bernstein Thanksgiving.

My father was reared in The Bronx’s Riverdale; my mother in Washington Heights. They both developed affinities for corned beef, Kosher salami and peppery pastrami— foodstuffs as rare as liberals in southwestern Ohio. Ever the good son, I’d return home for Thanksgiving bearing mounds of sliced meats and salamis like baseball bats.While the turkey roasted, my parents and siblings would attack the bounty like buzzards to carrion.

“I’ll shop for cheese,” my girlfriend volunteered, wanting no part of Zabar’s deli. I understood. Here, buying brisket can be a blood sport. Fiercely territorial Jewish grandparents stake out counter space, clutching pink line tickets like toddlers to their favorite blankets. I grabbed No. 6. Since the meat men were tending to 92, I hit the bakery for onion rye. Soft and fragrant and coated with enough caramelized onions to cause terminal halitosis, the old-fashioned onion rye is a sandwich’s best friend.To give my breath the deathblow, I then grabbed several garlic-potato and onion-potato knishes fresh from the oven.

I broke off a garlicky hunk of bread-encased mashed potatoes. It was smooth, savory and as flaky as a Valley girl, a treat from a simpler time. I was wrapped in such knish bliss that I didn’t notice as the deli numbers sped from six to seven, landing at 14. “I’m six! I’m six!” I shouted. I dashed back to the counter, waving my ticket like a fly swatter.

“Six? What are you doing with six?” the deli guy asked. He shook his head, as disappointed as a dad whose son gets a D on his report card.

“The knishes…” I said, hoisting my halfconsumed carbohydrates. He was as unmoved a Buckingham Palace guard. “Sorry,” I said. “Could I please have a pound apiece of pastrami and corned beef?”

He nodded begrudgingly. Several minutes later, I held a bag of well-brined meats, as heavy as gold and nearly as costly. At $18 a pound, I thought, my parents best know I love them. After grabbing a bag of chewy Bell’s bialys and black-and-white cookies—linchpins of edible Jewish culture—I found my girlfriend, wrist-deep in cheddar and blue cheeses.

“Get everything you need?” she asked, dropping an extra-sharp cheddar block into my basket.

“Not even close,” I said, wondering what sweet words I’d utter to enlist her help in carrying the 14-pound turkey to come.