Mimi Sheraton says the pastrami sandwich is having a moment. Everything that’s old really is new again. No one’s eating pastrami sandwiches out of necessity. It’s the more expensive lunch choice at the deli counter, normally costing around 15 dollars. Sheraton calls out the sandwich’s trendy status in her recent Departures Magazine article, “Hold the Mayo!” and even chases the rye-encased meat down to Ralph Lauren’s new Polo Bar. This paper-wrapped NYC deli creation isn’t only bound for designer-owned restaurants. The corn-beef-like sandwich’s influence is reaching for your kitchen counter, too. As Sheraton points out, it’s soaking in all of its “lofty culinary status,” while its spicy rub works its way into the prep stations for salmon, chicken, tofu, and vegetables. Look out, there’s a new trendsetter in town.
Given its made-hip-again status and solely indulgent purpose, it’s safe to say that the pastrami sandwich can be crowned the Donut of Lunchtime. Donuts overtook cupcakes as the #cheatday sweet treat, available in poetic flavors like Orange Dreamsicle, Cream of Coconut, and Maple Bacon, decorated with vibrant, glossy frostings and finished with a few toppings for the right amount of cute factor. And now the pastrami surpasses the adult grilled cheese, where one replaces American for Brie or farmer’s cheese and adds tomato, avocado, bacon, or fruit preserves, and if possible, purchases it from a truck with a Twitter account.
The working man’s coffee-and-donut breakfast received a revamping of sorts when small businesses treated what was once a mere fried dough with sprinkles to a decadent pastry-like makeover. If we’re serious about discussing taste, Dunkin won’t cut it. These fluffy artisanal rounds can sell at $3 a pop, and they sell out. Then Forman grill-sized donut makers appeared in Macy’s displays. Food bloggers developed recipes for every possible sugared glaze, for soft, fried, sugar-coated ones and baked, chocolaty cakey kinds .
Now, what was once the lunch of the NYC man-on-the-move is back in style, minimally dressed up at the Ralph Lauren Polo Bar. The question is, can a recipe that’s so traditional and unchanged be revamped, or did it just never lose its IT factor? Is it made-over, or rediscovered? The pastrami sandwich has officially hopped on the food trend wagon to secure its Instagramability for at least a few years.
Let’s compare pictures. Don’t you see the emotional resemblance?
Something so humble made decadent. Donuts are getting bigger. (What’s the deal with that upper left one?!), while Sheraton describes a pastrami sandwich on the smaller side as only “less grossly gargantuan.”
Nora Ephron wrote about a particular pastrami sandwich for The New Yorker back in 2002. She shared Sheraton’s appreciation for Langer’s Delicatessen in L.A., and her ode to their hot pastrami sandwich reappears in The Most of Nora Ephron (a serious delight). In what is humbly titled, “A Sandwich,” she describes Langer’s creation of 7 ounces of pastrami between warm rye bread as “soft but crispy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but tangy…. [It] is, in short, a work of art.”
Although Ephron explains that pastrami doesn’t belong in the family recipe repertoire—“It is not something anyone’s mother whips up and serves at home; it’s strictly restaurant fare”—Huff Post provides a list of recipe options, “because you need more than one.” Now everyone’s caught on. Sheraton calls it “food porn at its most lascivious” and offers a more graphic description: a sandwich that’s “overstuffed with rolled bundles or crisscross layerings of garnet-red fat-laced beef encrusted with peppercorns.”
Of course, what’s trending isn’t quite equivalent to trendy. Such a sandwich or breakfast treat offers personality and a well-loved cultural heritage that other foods can’t quite match. Pastrami and donuts are about comfort and familiarity. One-ingredient banana “ice cream” and quinoa patties don’t seem to have the same effect on people. They aren’t yet normalized in the long history of American food culture; the emotional response isn’t there. I won’t be biting into deli meats, but Ephron’s and Sheraton’s seductive writings are enough to make anyone anticipate an indulgent lunch break. In an ideal afternoon, Sheraton and Ephron could have ordered side-by-side at Langer’s. One sandwich for each.