culinaria eugenius in baltimore: in a pickle and a corn

Howdy, Eugeniuses!  I’m writing to you from the wrong coast, the first of many long-distance trips I’ll be making in the next few months.  As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t been posting many recipes and food-substantial posts lately.  My blogging has been like my cooking — I manage to squeeze in a few steps of a multi-step process, then just can’t finish.  So I have photos and experiences and notes, but no time to finish off something palatable for general consumption.  So everything goes in the compost pile.  Them’s the breaks.

I’m finishing the last few weeks of my first year of employment as a professor, and it’s been a tough term administratively, with increased demands on my time from all quarters: teaching, emailing/form-filling/grant-applying, researching, writing.  All I want to do when I get home is fall asleep, not wrestle with raw meat, bread dough, unwashed greens, unroasted peppers, unmashed potatoes, etc.

But with the school year ending imminently, I am excited to spend more time with my great love, food.  I organized a special session panel on literature, food, and desire, for my discipline’s big conference (the MLA convention in January 2011), and it was accepted!  I’ll be presenting on the iconic fruits of modern literature.  To prepare, I’m going to Zurich, Switzerland, in August to take part in a workshop on James Joyce and food.  And tomorrow, I’ll be at the University of Maryland archives researching the little-known food journalism of another modernist, Djuna Barnes.

For yes, I’m in Baltimore!  My husband grew up here, and we lived here for a couple of years together.  He knows the city far better than I do, but what I do know is that eating Jewish deli is one of my favorite things in the world.  So why do I look so crabby?

Well, it’s not the crabs.  And we’ve had our fill of crabs.  I’ll fill you in on another post.  It’s the Jewish deli.  I’ve written about Jewish deli before, even scooping the NYT on a story on new Jewish deli.  But I have to say that I’m absolutely floored by the oldest, probably least sustainable (?) Jewish deli techniques I’ve found back in Baltimore.  Because they are SO GOOD.

Now, I make a pretty good corned beef.  This one from last month was made from well-aged (i.e., a near save from rottenness; see paragraph one), local grassfed beef, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

And yet!  My corned beef is a pale, sad imitation of Attman’s corned beef, the best corned beef on the planet.  I mean, my corned beef tastes like you’re chewing on a piece of cardboard (and this is certainly not helped by the crap-ass rye bread we have in Eugene) compared to this:

It’s the same d&#%$@ cut!  And sure, they use a slicer to shave the meat, which makes a difference, and I spied with my little eyes that the flat cut of the brisket was topped by a thin portion of the fattier point cut, so each slice gets a bit of fat in it, but even without that delicious, magical trickery, I swear the brisket is actually silky.  The texture is SILKY.  How does that even happen to a hunk of meat?  This was what I was muttering and cursing to myself, holding up a slice of corned beef to the light, stretching and poking at it at Attman’s the other day.  Attman’s is the famed deli at the corner of Lombard and Horseradish Lane one of the very last remnants of the old Jewish district, Corned Beef Row, in East Baltimore. Here is one part of the dining room, with a small glimpse of the adjoining deli and its omnipresent line of customers:

Can I even tell you how hard it was for me to concentrate, what with the crooked picture setting off my OCD tendencies, the vintage self-named host chatting up the old ladies about Our Greatest Generation and “Kids Today…” and a homemade model of the H.M.S. Bounty (courtesy of said gentleman) and the mustard and the sign telling you how to order (Corned beef.  Rye.  Mustard.) (and the menu charging  you extra for tomato and lettuce and othersuch nonsense) and the tubs of pickles.  Pickles!  Green tomato, sour pickle, green new pickles.  Sauerkraut.

And Jewish deli pickles drive me mad.  MAD!  I can taste how they are different from mine (above, in their clean, West coast jar, bubbling away) and it’s maddening.  God.  It’s like I’m missing an entire range of subtle flavors and I don’t know how to get them.  Don’t know if it’s POSSIBLE to get them when you’re pickling in a glass jar and you don’t have the aged must of pickle fairy dust seeping from the barrels into your murky, menschy brine.

We went to Miller’s deli in Pikesville the next day.  I wasn’t that hungry, but I had to buy an assortment, including green tomatoes and “health salad,” a quick-pickled cabbage, cucumber, and carrot salad made with vinegar, water, salt, and sugar.  To my health!

Gobbled them down (with the help of relatives, of course).  But not before I inspected every inch of that bright green new pickle.  Holes to let in brine?  NO!  Fermentation fizz?  NO!  Bright salt as a predominant flavor?  NO!  Signs of pickling at higher, lower temperatures?  NO!  Partial pickling?  NO!  Vinegar?  NO!   Smaller cukes?  NO!  (Huge, in fact.)  Lots of garlic?  NO! Then what?  The pickle is new, but the brine tastes old, mostly of well-integrated pickling spice, hefty garlic but not all garlic, and not all that salty.  Not much dill.  Then what?

I am flummoxed.  Flummoxed.  O the secret society of the Jews and their magic preservation techniques.  Help meeeee!

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7 thoughts on “culinaria eugenius in baltimore: in a pickle and a corn

  1. Dave 23 May 2010 / 8:58 am

    Murky, menschy brine. Nice! They say that New York bagels can’t be replicated on the West Coast because of the New York water. Maybe the same can be said of East Coast pickles.

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  2. Mer 23 May 2010 / 9:21 am

    Huh. I think I need to check out Attman’s some weekend. If you’re at UMD-College Park, and bored of the archives, check out the Riverdale Park farmer’s market some Thursday afternoon.

    For yet more air and sunlight, you might also want to roam the Riverdale mansion. Last year, they had a stunning kitchen garden.

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  3. Eugenia 23 May 2010 / 10:29 am

    Mer, I could never be bored of archives! :) But I’m only here for a short weekend — we’re still in school, so the timing was a bit difficult but the trip needed to happen this week.

    Dave, it could be the water! (And the bagels are pretty good in B’more, too. Yum.)

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  4. JD 25 May 2010 / 6:37 am

    I wish I could tell you why East Coast deli food is so much better. But I can’t. I grew up on the stuff in NJ, and haven’t had a decent sandwich since I left 15+ years ago.

    Maybe it’s the proportion of Jews to gentiles. The chosen food needs to be near it’s own kind.

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  5. Eugenia 29 May 2010 / 8:58 am

    JD: it’s because we don’t know what the hell we’re doing (and I include myself in this category). I’m trying not to rant here, but the young turks in the PNW who are really into curing meat right now just don’t have the old school East Coast deli secrets that makes deli so good there. Maybe in 50 years or so we will. Or maybe we can convince Attman’s to move out here.

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  6. marc attman 14 June 2010 / 7:50 am

    the main reason you can not replicate our corned beef is we have been doing it the same way since 1915. oud deli is the oldest family owned jewish deli in the usa. therefore why be perplexed just order on line pat the shipping fee and enjoy the best. p.s. our dogswith bologna are the ultimate. thankyou for your accolades. marc attman 3rd. generation owner.

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  7. Eugenia 9 September 2010 / 5:55 pm

    Thanks, Marc. Spoken like a true businessman! I’m a huge fan.

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