Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rewriting the Stories of Summer: The Corned Beef Sandwich, Part 2

Rewriting the story...
For Part One, please go here.

As a narrative therapist, my work involves helping clients to "re-author their lives", or at least certain painful parts of it. It comes down to the idea that you can't change the past, but you can change how you look at it, and you can have a say in your future. I have used this concept on my own life, especially when thinking of my childhood and realizing the effect of what I did not get from my parents. It has worked well, resulting in more compassion not only toward my parents, but also toward myself. However, I have never tried to rewrite the corned beef sandwich story. This is probably because, even though I did not care for these sandwiches, eating them did not cause that much distress or trauma. It was just an unpleasant experience, one of many during my childhood, I am sure, but one that I remember vividly. Maybe it does hold more weight than I should grant it. If I am to be totally honest, I may have made up a story about it involving the possibility that my mother must not like me very much if she did this to us year after year. Regardless, I have decided that it is time to bury the negative association I attach to corned beef, and to this memory. For the story of the corned beef sandwich, please see Part 1 here.

There are about a billion Jewish delicatessens in Los Angeles, and many of them specialize in pastrami and corned beef sandwiches. I could easily ride to Canter's Deli in the Fairfax District if I want to have a Reuben, but there is something about Canter's that is just too "regular" for me. Even though it has been around for many many years, the only thing on the menu that I feel is worth going there for is the matzo ball soup. I also know that anything "regular" wouldn't have a chance of rewriting my childhood sandwich memory of 40 years ago. I needed a sandwich that would force me to take notice, a sandwich that could re-wire my brain. I suspected that I would find what I needed at Wexler's Deli.

Wexler's is making a huge splash in the downtown Grand Central Market.
It recently opened as an expression of "Jewish Soul Food", which, as a descriptor, cracks me up more than it whets my appetite. But from what I hear, if there is any place to get a corned beef sandwich, this is one of the places. If anything, it is another reason to visit the Market, which I have been exploring a lot more since quitting my day job over a year ago. Most cities have a similar place--I remember years ago going to a central market in downtown Philadelphia, and I loved it. The concept is simple: combine good food with quality grocery items and a bar or two and you have the makings of a classic gathering spot. Wexler's is part of the recent transformation, redesign, and upgrading of the L.A. Market--the good news is that it looks as though it is part of the original crowd of vendors--the design is authentic, modern, and nostalgic all at once.

I arrived midday on a hot Thursday afternoon in August. The market was teeming with people--a mix of the usual lunch crowd,
tourists, and people like me who were not working and had the time to go downtown in the middle of the week to mill about the Market. Wexler's was busy--a good sign, so I got into line and looked at the old fashioned menu board. I immediately saw my destination sandwich--the Reuben: so classic that they don't even give it another name like they do with the pastrami sandwich (the MacArthur Park).

When I was young, on family vacation, we did not call the sandwiches in the cooler "Reubens". They were just corned beef sandwiches, cold ones at that, and they certainly did not have sauerkraut or Russian dressing on them. They may have had cheese, but I doubt it was good Swiss. I do remember them being on Rye bread, and that I did not like this bread. In contrast, the Reubens at Wexler's are made to order, with thick slabs of warm corned beef, sauerkraut, dressing, and Swiss on homemade rye bread. I got mine handed to me by chef and owner Micah Wexler--how cool was that! It came alone on a cardboard tray--I had declined the pickle and side salad--there was no distracting me from the task I had set out to undertake. The sandwich looked promising. I took it to the tables on the upper deck of the Market, and I found a table with Coca-Cola signs on it. Actually, all the tables had Coca-Cola signs on them. The company must have sponsored the purchase of the tables. Either that, or the Market just got a good deal on a gang of Coca-Cola tables. I did not get a Coca-Cola to go with my lunch, because while Coca-Cola may make perfectly sturdy lunch tables, the beverage they produce is pretty much sweetened poison.

I sat down, and the first thing I did was to smell the sandwich.
My actual Reuben sandwich
The corned beef smelled less "corned beefy" than I remember my mother's sandwiches smelling, but that is also because I was smelling warmed Rye bread and tart sauerkraut. It smelled fantastic, I must say. The corned beef, as they advertise, was sliced thick, and was glistening with juices. As I bit into the sandwich a couple of things happened. Have you ever watched a show where there is a speedy and blurred "rewind" to a previous moment of time? That happened. I was back in the car with my family, on the way to my sister's house, and we had been handed our corned beef sandwich lunches from the cooler. I will come back to this in a second.

The second thing that happened is that my mouth rejoiced with flavorful sensation; you can recognize a perfect combination of ingredients when the sum of the parts creates something greater than the individual pieces. The crunch of the toasted bread gave way to the richness of the dressing and the tart sauerkraut, paving the way for the seasoned warm juiciness of the meat, which was supported by the smoothness of the cheese. Whoever created the Reuben was a fucking genius, and I bet it took a while to get it just right. The sandwich was remarkable, and I ate every single bite of it. I thought of how, just minutes earlier, chef Wexler had smiled and handed me this creation with pride, with the implied hope that I would enjoy it. And then there at the Coca-Cola table, as the taste of the finished sandwich lingered in my mouth and my senses, I was back in the family car again, opening up the plastic bag that held my cold lunch sandwich.

But in that moment, in my memory, something changed. I suddenly was aware that the vacation sandwiches were not some kind of punishment from my mother, or an indication that she did not like me, or that she could not care less what I liked or did not like. Instead, those sandwiches were made with love, by a mother who cared deeply for me, and who was trying so very hard to make the whole family happy. They were made by a mother who was expected to make the family lunches, and make them right, with very little acknowledgement or appreciation, because it was her "job". They were a way to avoid having to stop at some crappy fast food joint to eat god knows what made by someone who did not care about us in the least. They were made, just like chef Wexler's sandwiches, with pride, care, and love. And in my self-involved youth I did not see any of that, all I saw was a sandwich that had been undone by my own narrative. It was not the first time I failed to notice my mother's loving efforts, but that never stopped her from making them.

And yet, given all that, what is clear to me is that she most definitely did not make us Reuben sandwiches. A cold corned beef sandwich minus Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing is just a cold corned beef sandwich. And that was her mistake. My mistake was making up a story about it that was not true. I guess we have all made mistakes where family is concerned. Perhaps it is even required. But my mother had more at stake back then than chef Wexler did on the afternoon that he made my Reuben. On this afternoon, he was in charge of overseeing the execution of a product he had overseen thousands of times, with great success; the odds were in his favor. My mother, on the other hand, was in charge back then of pleasing a husband and two young sons with different tastes, with limited information. She was in charge of conforming to the role of a wife and mother in a culture that rarely empowered either; she was in charge of pleasing everybody but herself. In that light, it is easy for me to rewrite the corned beef sandwich story.

Making a mistake with someone is not the same thing as not loving them.

It is good to finally be able to enjoy a goddamn Reuben sandwich, especially when it helps me to fully appreciate my mother. Wexler's Deli, I will be back.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rewriting the Stories of Summer: The Corned Beef Sandwich, Part 1

flickr image by Kari Marie
When I was a young lad, way back in the last third of the last century, there were certain family traditions that were considered standard fare for practically everyone I knew. Many of those traditions have gone the way of the 8-track, in other words, many have been dated out by new technologies. At that time, there was no way to imagine that I would one day look back with nostalgia at more than what was playing on pop radio, but I must admit that I do. I find myself longing for the simplicity of the time, and the comfortable routines that made up my childhood: Sunday church, family dinners, Summer break, the start of school in the Fall, Christmas and birthdays. Though these routines all differed individually from year to year, I could always count on them to serve as markers of time--reminders that I belonged to a particular culture that had a certain comforting predictability. I must say that I took it for granted back then, since it was the only way of living I had ever experienced. Now, as a grown man, I am aware of how fragile traditions can be, and how they require maintenance and fresh effort as time goes on. Otherwise, traditions can change, or even disappear, when newness distracts us from what we know. There was actually a time not long ago when the routines of my adult life were mostly unfamiliar to me. Fortunately, that is no longer the case; I am at an age where I once again find great value in comforting routines that anchor my days. Some of them have been co-opted from my childhood and rewritten with new meaning. I would like to write about one in particular that could use some rewriting.

From as early as I can remember, until the age of about 14, my family and I would spend a week every summer taking a family vacation. These vacations were "routine", in that they usually occurred in July or August, and they most always involved piling into the car and driving up north to stay with my sister in Placerville, CA.
Downtown Placerville, aka "Old Hangtown"
For me, these were fantastic vacations, since my two nieces and nephew were close in age to me and my brother, my sister (their mother) being 20 years older than I. We all got along famously, in fact for a time I considered my oldest niece to be one of my best friends. We would spend the week swimming, running around, playing endless games of Monopoly, and generally being kids, as it was defined in the 20th century before everything was so monitored and monopolized by parents and electronic devices. We never put shoes on, we got tan, and we were skinny. Can you imagine?

It would take us about a day to drive up to Placerville from San Diego, and back then the arrangement was like this: Dad drove, Mom rode shotgun, and my brother and I shared the backseat with a large plastic cooler between us.
To this day, I will assert that that cooler is the reason I am still alive, since it was common for me and my brother to engage in warfare toward each other during the long drive up north. We were only a year apart (he was older), so our closeness often fueled fierce rivalry, especially when we were bored and somewhat dizzy from the cigarette smoke wafting constantly back from my parents' cigarettes. The cooler, in its humble state, served as an effective barrier between me and my brother, so that even when we attempted to strike out at one another, we would be impeded by a hard plastic boundary divider. My parents may have been smokers, but they weren't stupid!

There was only one thing about those summer vacations that I did not look forward to year after year, and that was the lunch my mother packed in the cooler for us to eat. For some unknown reason, she would always make corned beef sandwiches, and I HATED corned beef! To this day I cannot fathom why she settled on this type of sandwich, when the most obvious choice would have been bologna, but then that was my mother. A hotbed of unconventional choices, she was. Everyone else in the family seemed to enjoy them just fine, but I had to choke mine down or else go hungry. I kept my disdain to myself--back then kids didn't DARE question the choices offered for meals! Can you imagine?

Corned beef, as you may know,
Homemade Corned Beef--yum!
is just brisket that is cured with a brine, and the main difference between it and pastrami is that pastrami is smoked after curing. Truth be told, I have never been that crazy about pastrami either, but if you offer me a quality cut of either dish today, I will eat it with glee. There is a huge difference between the taste of good homemade meat today compared with store bought in the 70's. Let's just accept that fact.

As time went on, the family vacation routine took a hit, primarily because it became more difficult to convince two teenage boys to ride in a car together for six hours, divided by a cooler, when they could be doing other teenage things. But I have never forgotten those corned beef sandwiches, and how their presence seemed to mock me from their chilled berth inside contentious cooler. To this day I do not eat corned beef sandwiches.

to be continued... up: the trip to Wexler's Deli!