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!


  1. What a delightful account of a fond (or almost fond) childhood remembrance. It is very well-written and I'm looking forward to the next installment. I can fully relate to what you said about "finding great value in comforting routines that anchor my days."

    As for corned beef - I hated it as a child but I like it now, and I love pastrami. I didn't have any siblings, so no large plastic coolers were needed when we traveled.

    1. Thank you, Jon. I know that you get mileage out of multi-part posts, so I decided to break this one in two since it turned out very long! I think we can both agree that the corned beef of our youth is quite different from a cut of hot fresh corned beef that you can get today. Some things get better in time!

  2. This was a lovely post.
    I too miss the rhythm of family traditions that pass Time. We too went on many family trips - I don't recall anything equivalent to Corned Beef sandwiches however, so I am grateful.
    I look forward to your second part of this prose.

    1. Well the upside, Michael, is that the corned beef sandwiches gave me a good story, and that makes it all worth it!

    2. Yes, it's nice when painful or negative childhood memories are now the source of humor and blogging material !

  3. Tony,
    I'm glad I found your new blog. For the longest time I had your "California" blog but there was no activity on it. Looks like I have some catching up to do. I'm glad I found you . . . . again. See there, something good came from my "Make Me a 100" post. :)

    1. Well there you go! Yeah, when I changed it, I kept the old link because I didn't want to alienate my readers, but not sure how that ends up working. Anyway, glad you "re-found" it! You have time to catch up--I only post every couple of months! :-)