The Day of the Deli

One thing that I was sorely missing while living in central Illinois was a deli. A market, a sub shop, a luncheonette. Not a grocery store, we had three of those if you count Walmart. I mean a corner market, where you can access lottery tickets, a newspaper and most importantly: the food.

The upscale deli is a thing of hipster kingdoms and haute neighborhoods. Exposed brick and wooden beams do not a deli make. Ditto, exorbitant pricing of a fancy sandwich with sprouts or a spread you can’t pronounce. A true deli is an experience. It may or may not have a line out the door (it should) and possibly a “take a number” wheel. It should also be a place to go when you’re not trying to go somewhere. It becomes part of your routine, not a one-time destination.

I’m not entirely sure if this phenomenon extends past the East coast where I grew up. Just up the street from my parent’s home is Heights Market. A local institution where we used to get iced cinnamon rolls before school, my dad still gets the paper there on Sunday mornings. It’s small, nothing fancy, a maximum of four aisles. The odds we’ll see someone we know are 8 out of 10.

They get fresh rolls from a local bakery, and keep them on the counter top in tall plastic cases, with the plastic tongs to go surfing for the one that looks just right. A massive selection of brightly labeled chips (Utz, obviously) mirror A-treat 2 liters and other sugary sweet beverages that I call SODA, not pop. The baking spices are twice the price. The meat case is full of local beef from Koehler’s farm**. And then, there’s the deli counter.

Stein's Deli NOLA

Cheers to gkahns for this great photo of Stein’s Deli in New Orleans, which I know and love.*

Enclosed in glass and under lights, is a large variety of comfort food. Some people call them cold-cuts, others call it lunch-meat, whatever it is if it’s a real deli the selection should be vast. Ham and turkey and roast beef by the pound. Several kinds of cheese with salt content so high it could seize your heart. Tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad, what-is-there-besides-mayo salad. Bright pink signs a shade more neon than the pickled beets shout out the prepared foods that you simply must have for dinner: stuffed peppers, baked macaroni and cheese, swedish meatballs.

The wall behind the counter boasts the same hard plastic Boarshead sign that’s been there since the dawn of time. A list of daily specials in strident fonts calls for your attention (Meatball Sub Monday!) and a long mirror lines the counter, where you can ask your reflection if you really do need that quarter pound of potato salad (you deserve it).

Thin-sliced, thick sliced, that’s just fine-sliced – the butcher and his crew will assemble your plastic-wrapped packages however you like. While you wait, you stare down the hanging columns homemade jerky (you could smell it on the drive in) and consider the heavy barrel full of gigantic deli pickles and the rickety wire stand of Hostess products and fruit pies. Then of course you need a sandwich. A hoagie, a sub, a sandwich, a gyro.

If you’ve had a deli sandwich, you’ll likely frown upon any other type of assembled meat and cheese situation. This is the equivalent of going to Taco Bell for a burrito and expecting Chipotle. You’re doing it wrong. A deli sandwich is required to be at least twice the diameter of your mouth, insofar as you will take one bite and the entire thing will fall out the back, which you’ll miss because your eyes are closed for the first bite, like a first kiss.

I hope you have a napkin in that brown paper bag.

* read more about Stein’s Deli and my NOLA food binge.

** Mom corrected me. No meat from Koehler’s at Heights! But Bethlehem Brewworks carries it in burger form 🙂


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