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There is a constant hubbub outside of Manhattan’s iconic Katz’s Delicatessen on E. Houston Street. From what I’ve gathered in my many passes by the umami-scented street corner, it’s mostly tourists. Katz’s main export, the pastrami sandwich, is a source of puzzlement for me. Here’s the problem: The standard serving for a pastrami sandwich (across the board; not just at Katz’s, which is operated by lovely people who are very kind and efficient) is ridiculous and worth reconsidering. They are simply too goddamn big.
Katz’s Deli is famous for its delicious food, but also for being the location of the infamous Meg-Ryan-orgasm-faking scene in When Harry Met Sally. But when you look at the portions of these sandwiches, and at pastrami sandwiches in general, you realize that in actuality, Meg Ryan might have been having a heart attack that was written into the scene as faux ecstasy.
Based on my own estimates, I figured that a sandwich from Katz’s could be broken down into at least four normal-sized sandwiches. However, I had no scientific basis for this claim, as I’d never made sandwiches from other sandwiches; that seems like something better left to Jesus.
To backtrack, let’s be clear: I love salted meat. When I read the World Health Organization’s report that says processed meat causes cancer, I decided to believe that “processed meat” exclusively refers to Slim Jims. For lovers of salted meat, the pastrami sandwich is an ideal delivery method: melty fat, barely-held-together pieces of meat, and two thin slices of toasted rye that add much-needed textural contrast and a dry grip to hold this protein-fat glob.
But the proportions, from both a meat-to-bread and calories-to-ability-to-do-anything-after perspective, are not favorable to me. Not anymore. When working in an office job I truly hated, once every few weeks, my coworkers and I would plan our post-lunch schedules around a specific delicatessen which served gargantuan corned beef and pastrami sandwiches. (Corned beef is brined beef. Pastrami is corned beef that’s been smoked. All rectangles are squares, etc.)
The planning element around this meal was required due to the sheer size of the sandwiches, and thus, the level of nihilistic lethargy that followed eating one. These meals looked like props from a heartburn medication commercial.
If I were to get onto a psychiatrist’s couch to understand why I repeatedly subjected myself to this experience, I’d probably fall asleep (especially if I just ate a pastrami sandwich). But after waking up from a meat-sweats-drenched nap, I’d probably say this was a gastric act of rebellion. My friends and I, perhaps subconsciously, gave ourselves the itis as a way to steal productivity from the company; we were throwing dirt into the gears of production with delicious, sodium-drenched beef.
Now, as a freelance writer that’s constantly on-the-go (imagine I’m addressing a camera, grabbing a Pellegrino from a fridge stocked only with bottled water, as I walk the length of my sprawling 300-square-foot studio apartment), I don’t want a sandwich that makes me feel legally dead for several hours after. If I pay $24.44 for a sandwich, I want to get my money’s worth not just in meat, but in true satisfaction.
I went to Katz’s around half past three on a Wednesday afternoon in early April. The deli is built to handle its ever-present crowds, and as a result, I had to deal with four separate people to buy a pastrami sandwich. There’s the guy at the front door, who gave me a ticket; the cutter who took my ticket, made the sandwich (and gave me a couple hunks of pastrami to sample); the guy who took my payment via credit card; and another guy by the door to check my receipt, to ensure I paid and was not meatlifting.
As any fiscally savvy person will tell you, sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Prior to my trip to Katz’s, I invested in a loaf of rye bread. I then asked for my sandwich to be served open-faced and performed a culinary operation, which yielded five separate pastrami sandwiches. Aside from an improved meat-to-bread ratio, I could now also enjoy savings of a large cost over five meals, making me feel both financially and nutritionally responsible.
Furthermore, I was able to enjoy a pastrami sandwich several times instead of in just one sitting. And each time I ate one of my reasonably sized sandwiches, I was not incapacitated shortly thereafter. I brought one to a movie theater. (Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication, my girlfriend ate both halves, but that’s fine.) I had another one right after a workout, sitting on a bench overlooking the East River. If I were to eat a traditional overstuffed pastrami sandwich in this setting, I’d inevitably drop meat on the ground, only to be attacked by birds, falling over the railing and drowning in the process.
If you’re aware of the size of the standard pastrami sandwich, and you want that morbid feeling that follows after consuming one, don’t listen to me. It’s not my place to rob you of a coping mechanism I formerly employed myself. Otherwise, I ask you to question why you’ve come to accept a ridiculous serving-size standard.
We know that people will eat more based on what they’re served, as proven by a study in which people who unknowingly ate out of self-refilling bowls of soup consumed more than those who didn’t.
Armed with this information, you can bring a metaphorical Tupperware container to the magic soup bowl that is a regular pastrami sandwich, which is too goddamn big. All you need is a loaf of bread and a little bit of self-discipline.