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Deli Men

Deli Men

800px-Lox_and_baked_salmon_saladBy Bert Stratton

My father, Toby, was a “deli Jew.” That’s usually a putdown in the Jewish community, meaning my father knew more about corned beef than the Torah. Toby’s favorite food was a “good piece of rye bread.”

My dad was a chocolate phosphate drinker. Cleveland musician Mickey Katz, in his autobiography, called chocolate phosphates “Jew beers.” (Katz’s son was Joel Grey of Cabaret fame.) Katz drank “Jew beers” at Solomon’s Deli on E. 105th Street in Glenville.

My father, Toby, was a “deli Jew.”

My dad probably drank no more than 100 real beers in his whole life. He should have! In his retirement, when he drank he smiled a lot more. A bit shiker at one party, Toby teed off on a watermelon fruit bowl with a golf club. That stuck with me. (Shiker means drunk.)

I grew up on chocolate phosphates. The drink is carbonated soda-fountain water with chocolate syrup. I drank many of mine at Solomon’s in the Cedar-Center shopping strip in South Euclid, where Solomon’s moved in the 1950s.

For some Semitic semantic reason, gentiles occasionally called Cedar Center the Gaza Strip. The north side of Cedar Center became that. A couple years ago it was concrete chunks and gravel heaps, until a real estate developer knocked down the 1950s-era plaza and put up a Bob Evans and other national chains.

Bob Evans is good, but not a deli.

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My dad grew up in a deli on Kinsman Road. His mother had a candy store-deli at E. 118th Street. The deli was called Seiger’s—my grandmother’s maiden name. She sold it to her half-brother when he came over from the Old Country. Something fishy about that deal. My grandmother went from being a candy store-deli owner to simply a candy store owner.

My dad grew up in a deli on Kinsman Road.

At the Gaza Strip in South Euclid, there was also Corky & Lenny’s. (Still around—four miles east.) A couple of small Jews hung out in the rear booth at Corky’s. One was Bobby. (“Bobby” is a pseudonym. He’s still around.) Bobby did collections for a major landlord. Major, to me, means more than 1,000 units. I knew Bobby from junior high.

Bobby sued my mother. My mother, for health reasons, had moved from her Beachwood apartment after 27 years into an assisted living facility. She had a couple months left on her lease. Bobby, who represented the major landlord, went after her. Bobby’s boss, by the way, loved my band. So what. My mother was collectable.

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In 2010, journalist David Sax wrote a book, Save the Deli, about the decline of the deli. Here’s something for the next edition: Delis went downhill when they added TVs. Now you have to watch the Browns (or Indians) while you eat.

I’m deli-famous.

I’m deli-famous. I had a thank-you note up in the entrance of Jack’s Deli on Green Road in Beachwood for years. My letter was about the terrific tray Jack’s prepared for my son’s bris. Fatherhood was about buying huge quantities of smoked fish. What a blast I had. I complimented Jack’s on their fish, which my Aunt Bernice the Maven approved of. I mentioned “The Maven’s seal of approval” in my letter, which, like I said, made it into Jack’s front window. Bernice worked for a food broker and knew food.

Jack’s or Corky & Lenny’s? That’s the question, although I’m not sure anybody is asking it these days. (No, Slyman’s Deli is not an option. That’s too far afield.)

Once, when I strayed too far from the Heights, I played the “deli card” just to establish my bonafides.

Once, when I strayed too far from the Heights, I played the “deli card” just to establish my bonafides in an odd place. I was working as a Sun Newspapers reporter in Collinwood, and the cops at the police station on E. 152nd Street considered me a Jewish hippie spy. But when I told the cops I was a Seiger—“from Seiger’s Restaurant, you know, on E.118th and Kinsman”—the older cops suddenly liked me. The old cops—the high-ranking bosses—knew Seiger’s very well. Seiger’s had been a Damon Runyon casting hall on Kinsman Road. (It closed in 1968.) All manner of hustlers, cops, businessmen, and shnorers (beggars) hung out there. The shnorers were Orthodox Jewish tzeddakah (charity) solicitors; they had their own booth in the back. My great-aunt Lil Seiger served the shnorers kosher food from her apartment, which was in back of the store, because the shnorers wouldn’t eat the non-kosher food. The deli was kosher-style, not kosher.

Cops ate well at Seiger’s on Kinsman. Nobody ever got a ticket for an expired meter, and sometimes cars were parked two lanes deep on the street, the old cops said. Itchie Seiger, my great uncle, had been the restaurant’s owner/maitre d’/kibitzer (glad-handler), and was a former cloak maker from Galicia, Austria-Hungary.

I personally didn’t see Itchie very often. My parents didn’t consider a drive from our house in South Euclid down Kinsman the right direction for a Sunday cruise. We usually wound up at the Chagrin Metroparks out east.

We drank chocolate phosphates to drown our sorrows.

My great-aunt Lil Seiger supposedly gave her recipe for mish mosh soup to Corky’s. All the deli owners knew each other. I feel connected to Corky & Lenny’s because of that soup recipe. In fact the oddest shiva (mourningI attended was at Corky’s, April 1968. It was for a high school friend who was rejected by every single college he applied to. We—the kid’s friends—sat in a corner booth and drank chocolate phosphates to drown our sorrows. We were all in somewhere, but our friend was out everywhere. Our guy had applied to six Ivy League schools and was turned down by all of them. He didn’t have a single back-up school. (He got into Ohio State on a “Hail Mary”—a late app.)

I can’t cut it in the deli life—the corned beef—anymore.Hummus is my go-to. I’m big at Tommy’s on Coventry and have been for a long time. I’m just not the deli Jew my dad was. I gave up on salami years ago. I write about delis. That, and the occasional quaffing of a chocolate phosphate. That’s the best I can do. Slurp. ::

 

Bert Stratton is the bandleader of Yiddishe Cup. He blogs at Klezmer Guy, and has contributed to the New York Times, the Times of Israel, the Plain Dealer and City Journal. He has won two Hopwood Awards.

Corned beef sandwich image via Shutterstock.

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4 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    July 29, 2014

    Growing up in Cleveland in the 1970s and 80s, we spent a fair amount of time at Corky & Lenny’s. I have vivid memories of sitting at the bar with my father and ordering a corned beef knish with brown gravy. This had to have been a Cleveland thing. I later lived in New York for 23 years and never saw a knish with gravy. I think if I’d asked for gravy on a knish at Yonnah Schimmel’s, they would have looked at me like I’d asked for whipped cream and a cherry on top.

    My favorite deli was Lefton’s. It was a bit less of an enterprise than Corky’s, so more attention could be focused on the quality of the food. The corned beef was a little more garlicky, the rye bread just a little fresher. I remember the owner retired to Florida and closed up shop in the early 1980s. It was the end of an era.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      July 31, 2014

      I also remember Lefton’s. Having moved to Beachwood in eighth grade that was where our crowd hung out. When I was with my Heights friends we went to Solomon’s or Corky’s but with the Beachwood crowd we went to Lefton’s. Having lived in Denver for the last 40+ years, when I met someone out here whose name was Lefton, he got a kick out hearing about the deli he never knew existed.

      Reply

  2. Avatar
    July 29, 2014

    Bert, I miss the old Gaza Strip. The Jewish waitresses could tell I was a gentile (and Irish Catholic to boot), and carefully guided me through the various foods, what I could handle and what I probably couldn’t. Called me “hon” but didn’t have any pretend gushing going on. When I moved to Texas many years ago, I asked my co-workers where a good deli was where I could get a sandwich. They told me Subway. I tried to explain corned beef and rye bread and horseradish. This confused them even more.. So I asked them how they would feel if they were in Cleveland and asked where they could get good barbecue and I told them to get a McRib at McDonald’s. They were horrified. But they still had no idea what I was talking about deli-wise.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    July 30, 2014

    Oy. Takes me back. Waaaay back. To the 60′s and beyond. My dad always had the front table at Solomon’s at Cedar Center every Sunday morning. This was after Kornman’s closed downtown. Then at Corky’s when Solomon’s closed, then again when Corky’s moved to Village Square. The same guys would come every week, some to settle up (envelopes were passed, if you get my drift,) some because Junior picked up the tab, some to tell and retell and re-retell stories of guys with funny names. It was a multi-ethnic group – the Irish attorney with the World Series rings, the Irish and Italian judges, the Hungarian hustler (and I say that in the fondest way) who once asked my dad to store a confessional at his business until he found a buyer. Yes, two Jews and a confessional. There’s a joke there somewhere. And Curly, who sold things out of the trunk of his Cadillac. Some were things that “fell off the back of a truck,” but mostly he was a mobile version of Overstock.com and the source of some of the most awful Ban-Lon shirts you’d ever seen. Oh yeah, and the food was good, too.

    Reply

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