Harry Lerner’s Deli

Excerpted from “Children of Cain” by Peter J. Cairo:

Harry Lerner’s was practically an historical landmark, having the distinction – for over thirty years – of serving the finest delicatessen cuisine outside of New York. Harry acquired a reputation for over-sized sandwiches and his Reubens were the stuff of culinary legend.

The rye bread was baked fresh locally and delivered fresh and still warm every morning. Harry preferred thicker slices for his Reubens and cut the bread himself.

The corned beef and pastrami were special-ordered from his cousin Murray, a kosher meat packer in Brooklyn, who cured it using a recipe given to him by Harry’s grandmother. Harry preferred the traditional cut, taken from the navel end of the underbelly rather than the chest area, because it was exceptionally tender and heavily marbled. It cost more, but it was worth every penny.

Harry shunned pre-packaged sauerkraut, which he regarded as a blasphemous simulacrum of the real thing, opting instead to make his own in several large, ten-gallon stoneware crocks that sat in the coolest part of the dark basement underneath the deli. Harry’s sauerkraut was darker than the storebought variety and redolent with the unmistakably pungent fragrance of fermentation, spiced by a generous helping of caraway seeds and a few juniper berries that imparted a delicate gin-like note.

In the fervent belief that production line, domestic Swiss cheese had no place on classic sandwiches, Harry ordered in several large wheels of imported Emmental every month, each weighing close to forty pounds. Like every other item he special-ordered, they were hellishly expensive, but Harry didn’t think twice about incorporating the cost in the price he charged for his sandwich creations – and his customers didn’t think twice about paying for them.

Even the Russian dressing (served on the sandwich itself and available for dipping in a small tymbale on the side) was a homemade variation of the classic recipe. Starting with a base of sour cream, Harry whisked in warm honey, extra light olive oil, plain tomato paste, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt, celery seed, grated onion, minced green and bell peppers and finally, several heaping tablespoons of fresh Hungarian paprika.

The artistry began after the order was placed. Harry (or one of his well-trained assistants) would butter a thick slice of rye bread, place it butter side down on a large metal spatula and smear it with a generous dollop of dressing. Nearly a full pound of pastrami or corned beef, sliced paper-thin, was heated for a minute in a microwave oven to take the chill from the meat and then piled on top of the dressing. This was followed by two slices of Emmental, a generous helping of warm sauerkraut, another slice of Emmental and another smear of dressing. The second slice of buttered bread was placed on top and the sandwich carefully transferred to a hot, double-sided griddle where it sizzled for five minutes until the bread developed a golden brown crust and the cheese began to melt. The sandwich was cut in half and plated with a quartered kosher dill pickle and a small bowl of his homemade coleslaw.

Harry offered all this and a cup of fresh coffee or a tall glass of either lemonade or iced tea for fifteen dollars. On Mondays and Fridays, the line at lunchtime wended its way outside the door and along the sidewalk.

As it was nearly 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, the traffic at Harry’s subsided considerably, and between serving occasional customers who wandered in for a late lunch, he and his staff busied themselves preparing for the next day’s lunch rush.

Laura pulled the BMW to a stop in front of the establishment – several parking spaces had opened up as the workday began winding down to a close. Much of the downtown business consisted of small, miscellaneous storefront operations that included several bookstores (this was a college town, after all), a couple of vintage clothing stores, a sporting goods center, two taverns, a barbershop and an antique dealer.

“This is Harry’s place,” Roland announced as they got out of the car. “He opened it almost 35 years ago – before you were born, most likely.”

“A long time for a place like this to be in business,” she replied, gazing up at the sign above the front door.

He gently placed his hand under her elbow and escorted her in.

“Professor Cafferty, long time no eat! Where have you been?” The loud, gravelly, basso profundo shout came from the deli-meister himself.

Harry Lerner was a short, stocky, jocular man of indeterminate elderly years who could have passed, without objection, for a former boxer – or dockworker. His bright blue eyes were set in a craggy, square-jawed face dominated by bushy, white eyebrows. All that remained of a once full head of dark hair was a closely cropped tonsure, now snow white, that gave him a strangely beatific appearance – like a Judaic Saint Anthony of Padua.

He scurried around the end of the counter, rushing forward to greet his old friend. A white apron, stained with the colors and hues of the day’s business, wrapped around his considerable midsection and draped down to his knees like the hem of a dress. He grabbed Roland’s hand and pulled him close for a bear hug. Harry was a foot shorter than Roland and much wider, so he contented himself with wrapping his beefy arms around the professor’s chest and squeezing him tightly.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long, Harry. I moved out of the area a month ago and I live a half hour from here, so I’m not around as much.”

“Well then, shame on you for not visiting me more often. No phone calls…not even a letter or a greeting card. You’re as bad as my kids.” Harry stood back, carefully eyed Roland from head to toe and then gently patted him on the cheek. “You’re looking a little thin. You should eat more.” Roland could have weighed four hundred pounds and Harry would have said the same thing.

Laura closely observed the friendly exchange, savoring the nuance of banter that most likely hadn’t changed in decades. It was obvious that Roland and Harry were close friends. She wondered what catalyst could have triggered two obviously different personalities, who led such different lives, to forge so close a bond.

“Harry, allow me to introduce you to Laura…” His voice trailed off and he paused for an awkward moment. “Oh my God, I don’t know your last name,” he stammered, staring at her plaintively.

“I never told you,” she smiled, removing her sunglasses and extending her hand to Harry. “Laura Montresor. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Harry Lerner.”

Harry grasped her hand in both of his. If he felt any coldness in her flesh, he gave no evidence of it, but stared intently into her eyes, then slowly panned his gaze down to her feet and back up to her eyes again. Although an inch or two shorter than Roland, she towered over the old man.

“You are one tall drink of water, my dear,” he said quietly. He was impressed with her. “Such a lovely girl, professor. I’m glad to see you finally started dating again.”

It was an innocuous statement – uttered innocently and with affectionate sincerity – but a revealing one, and she took note of it.

“So,” Harry continued, “are you folks here for the food or the lovely atmosphere?” The premises were surprisingly spacious, almost seventeen feet wide by thirty feet deep, with the kitchen beyond, separated by an ancient pair of swinging saloon doors. The ‘lovely atmosphere’ to which Harry half jokingly alluded was the slap-dash, to-hell-with-coordination interior decor that effectively flipped the bird to every theme restaurant in existence.

The embossed tin ceiling twelve feet above the floor had long since changed from white to a dull café au lait – a patina from decades of kitchen effluvia. In three locations along the centerline, large ceiling fans spun slowly and casually, wafting back down to nose level the fragrance of comfort food that lingered in the warmer, rising air. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling oak wainscot stained a dark walnut color, shellacked and ignored thereafter. The first eight feet of the left wall consisted of a simple, white Formica counter and six stools where patrons who were in a rush could bolt down their sandwiches or soup before bolting back to work. The remainder of the wall was taken up by five booths, the benches of each heavily padded and upholstered in a hideously garish shade of Chinese red naugahide. A solid partition extended up six feet above the backs of adjoining benches and a simple, unpainted pine latticework formed a quasi-ceiling over the arrangement. In the center of the wall of each of the booths hung an autographed photo of some celebrity or other who stopped by for a knosh over the decades. Dozens of framed photos of all sizes dotted the walls throughout the place – testimonials to Harry’s culinary fame.

The right side of the deli was dominated by three refrigerated cases and a short counter with a cash register, where orders were taken and paid for. The case nearest the front door featured all of the meats and cheeses used in his famous sandwiches. The second, larger, case offered a drool-inducing array of knishes, blintzes, matzo balls, gefilte fish, smoked eel, herring in sour cream, pierogies, tubs of sauerkraut, and a selection of clear plastic containers filled with a variety of soups, bisques, and chowders. The third case held the dessert items. At Harry’s, anyone who still had room after they finished their meal could choose between an oversized apple turnover or a huge wedge of cheesecake – both homemade, of course – along with all the free coffee or tea they could drink. The wall behind the counter was dominated by two gigantic rectangular chalkboards that neatly scripted out the menu offering. It had been sealed long ago with shellac, ample warrant that Harry Lerner was no friend of change – an attribute that endeared him to his customers, who knew they could find refuge in a secure harbor of comforting familiarity, away from the storms of culinary fads.

While Harry chatted with Roland, she continued to survey the interior of the place, her gaze falling upon, and delighting in, one detail after another. This IS tacky, she thought to herself. In fact, it’s awful – so awful that it’s actually charming. She felt comfortable there.

Harry escorted them to the last booth near the back of the deli, where the lighting was more subdued and they would have a little more privacy. “I’ll take care of you folks myself. Just give me a minute,” he said, retreating behind the counter.

Laura settled into her seat and glanced up at framed pitcture of Frank Sinatra, taken sometime in the mid-1980s. In a clear background area near the bottom of the publicity shot, the singer wrote ‘Start spreading the news – Katz Deli has nothing on Harry Lerner’s. Best wishes, Frank Sinatra.’ She smiled and glanced back at Roland.

“Were you ever here when someone famous dropped by?”

“Only once,” he responded. “In 1982 President Reagan gave a speech at the university. The campus was a madhouse because everyone wanted to see him. I just wanted to eat, but the food hall in the commons was packed. So I came here. As luck would have it, this is where he stopped before heading out to Newark.”

“Did you meet him?”

“Yup. Harry introduced me to him. Imagine that: a deli man was my ticket to meet the President of the United States,” he chuckled, shaking his head.

“What did he eat? “

Roland started to laugh. “I guess his staff placed the order earlier, because one of the clerks came out carrying a huge cardboard box full of sandwiches and turnovers. Then he autographed a picture of himself and posed for a photo with Harry. Next thing I knew, he was gone,” Roland shrugged. “My fifteen second brush with presidential fame. His picture is over there, by the cash register.”

She turned her head and looked closely at the wall behind the counter. It was a standard publicity shot, but the president signed it with a black marker and she was able to read the bold script: “A good man makes good food. God bless you, Harry. Ronald Reagan.”

Harry approached the booth, order pad in his hand. “What’ll it be, Professor? Are you really hungry or just…ehhhhhh,” he asked, making a see-saw motion with his hand.

“I’m starved, Harry.”

“And you, young lady? Are you starved as well?”

“Actually, I am,” she lied. She wasn’t feeling even remotely peckish. However, she did agree to come here. You made your prevarication, she thought to herself… now eat it.

Harry glanced back at Roland. “A couple of Reubens, professor? That should take care of any hunger issues.”

Roland flashed a wickedly knowing smile then glanced up at the deli-meister. “Absolutely, Harry. Only make one with pastrami and the other with corned beef and divide them between the two plates.” He turned back to Laura. “You do like pastrami and corned beef, right?”

“Both sound fine,” she replied with a smile.

Harry scribbled the order onto the pad. “Excellent, professor. You got it. And to drink?”

“Coffee is fine, Harry.”

“And you, young lady? Coffee?”

“Oh, no…thank you, she replied. “One cup of coffee and I’m bouncing off the walls.”

“How about decaf?”  Harry helpfully suggested.

She wrinkled her nose “Thanks, but decaf has a funky taste.”

“I have decaffeinated ice tea, and trust me when I tell you, it’s delicious,” Harry interjected.

“Perfect,” she smiled. “I’m sorry to be such a pain, Harry.”

“Oh please,” the old man scoffed. “You have a discriminating palate. My wife should be so discriminating. She’d lose a lot more weight.”

Roland laughed and shook his head. “That should do it for us, Harry. Thanks.”

“You got it.” He scooted back behind the counter and brushed past the swinging doors into the kitchen, emerging moments later with a mug of black coffee and a tall glass of iced tea on saucer, a fresh wedge of lemon on the side, which he set down carefully on the table.

“Your food will be ready in a few minutes, folks.” Harry turned to Roland and winked. “You picked a winner, Professor. She’s a doll.” He winked and flashed a broad, Polident grin at Laura, then turned and abruptly charged back into the kitchen.

Roland’s face flushed with embarrassment. He emptied a packet of sugar into his coffee, and stirred it lazily with his spoon.

Laura gently squeezed the wedge of lemon into her iced tea. “That was the second time he commended me to your tender embrace. Is there something I don’t know that I should know?”

Roland paused for several moments, his brow furrowed as he tried to collect his thoughts.

“I can see this is making you uncomfortable,” she said.

“I’m just not sure where to start or what to say.” He hadn’t expected the subject to come up this abruptly.

“Perhaps if I asked a question?” she suggested.

“Sure.”

“When did you meet her?”

It was a single, simple, incisive question that clarified everything. Was Harry that obvious? Or was she that intuitive?

“I met her in 1979, my senior year.”

Laura leaned against the wall and crossed her legs along the length of the bench. “And?”

“I used to come here once a week on Friday for a Reuben and a bowl of soup. She worked part time for Harry – I saw her whenever I came in, usually in the afternoon. She was a freshman who lived in town and commuted to the campus. I lived on campus and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember ever seeing her there.

“She was slim and petite, with auburn hair and brown eyes. Not drop dead gorgeous, but naturally attractive in a way that was beautifully simple. She was the girl next door: always smiling, always laughing, always happy. I was completely smitten with her but, for some reason, I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask her out.

“Harry saw this because he watched the both of us every time I was there. One day, he pulled me aside and told me to order gazpacho. He said that when she brought it to the booth, I should tell her that it was cold and ask her if she could heat it up. If she laughed, it would be the green light to ask her out.”

Laura smiled and leaned forward. “Did you do it?”

“Yes,” he replied. “When she brought the soup to my table, I did exactly what Harry suggested. She laughed…and we had our first date that weekend. Years later, Harry confessed that he set the whole thing up. He told her that if I made her laugh, she should go out with me because a man is not a man unless he has a sense of humor and a woman is not a woman if she can’t laugh. The year after I graduated, we were married and settled in an apartment on campus – I had just been hired as an assistant professor of history. She continued with her classes and graduated in ‘82. A couple of years after that, we had children and I published the book. I’m sure you saw the dedication.”

Laura recited it in perfect French. “Amelia, notre amour endurera toujours.”

He was surprised that she remembered it and impressed that she spoke the words so fluently.

“Well, forever ended in 2002. Bone cancer.”

“Oh God, I am so sorry.”

“There was plenty of time for me to say good-bye. I wish I had taken more time to say hello.”

It crushed Laura to hear this and she regretted not having investigated him more thoroughly ahead of time, as this was precisely the sort of awkwardness she had hoped to avoid. His grief was deep and palpable and a stinging reminder of her own losses, too numerous to recall at once. His grief was a struggle to exorcise a single ghost from a single room, hers, an entire legion from everywhere in the house.

An awkwardly uncomfortable quiet settled over them again, and while it provided a needed pause to unencumber themselves of agonies best forgotten, the silence became intolerable for her and Laura looked up and said, “A love once true, e’en in the past, were its glory e’er touted – will e’ermore and truly last, if true love be ne’er doubted.”

“That’s beautiful,” he murmured quietly.

“Catherine Farringham,” she answered, taking another sip of her tea.

He shook his head. “I never heard of her.”

“She was a very close friend of Emily Dickinson.” Laura raised her glass. “May the happier times stay here and now and the sadder times stay there and then.”

“Amen,” he responded, raising his cup. His first impression was correct. She was unlike any woman he had ever met.

Harry waddled from the kitchen to the table, a large platter in each hand, and set them down.

Laura stared at the sandwich – two enormous, equally sized halves, one with pastrami and the other with corned beef – arranged apart from each other with a small, shallow bowl of coleslaw between them and the pickle quarters along the sides. There had to be almost two pounds of food on the plate.

“Oh, dear God,” she uttered, gazing incredulously at the platter in front of her.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Harry interjected, grinning deviously. “It’s so huge. I get that a lot from women…”

Both of them looked up at Harry, who was keen to finish the punchline.

“…about the sandwiches. I get that from women about the sandwiches.”

Roland smiled, unfolding his napkin onto his lap. “They look delicious. Thank you, Harry.”

The old man refilled the mug with coffee and the glass with more iced tea. “So…enjoy.” With that, he turned and hurried back to the kitchen.

Laura stared mutely at the monstrosity on her plate then looked up at Roland, who gazed back at her expectantly. “Well? Was I right?”

She stared in awe at more food on a single plate than she ordinarily consumed in a week. “Oh yes, and look…lots of…sauerkraut.” She silently cursed herself for not admitting she didn’t really know what a Reuben was.

“It’s homemade,” Roland said between bites. “Best sauerkraut on the East Coast.”

“I’m sure it is,” she replied with a forced smile. Although she enjoyed the taste of sauerkraut, Laura was digestively allergic to it and knew her intestines would rebel with awful consequences several hours later. If she ate this sandwich, tonight’s meeting of the Directorate would be relegated, for the most part, to the bathroom adjacent to her office suite. If she declined to eat it, she would insult Harry and embarrass Roland. The difference between a small portion and a larger one would be marginal as far as the effects were concerned. However, if she ate most of it or all of it, Harry would be delighted and Roland impressed. The choice was obvious.

“Here goes,” she shrugged, picking up one of the sandwich halves, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

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