Food Story: The Pastrami King

By Davin Michael Stedman

ACT ONE

Let me start at the beginning. About a year ago I was in my hometown of Everett, WA enjoying my routine bowl of Pho soup, which I consider the Vietnamese elixir of life. As I reached for more Sriracha sauce, a young man strolled up to my table. He pulled off his headphones, and struck up a casual conversation, as he recognized me as the guy from ‘that band’. After we chatted for a bit about the veracity of several local legends, I astonished the young man by not knowing about what he considered Everett’s Holy Grail. He literally turned my chair around and pointed across the street through the early autumnal fog and there it was, Barney’s Pastrami & Dip.

The very next week I walked into Barney’s shop and it was love at first sight. You pull the newish television off the wall and his could make you feel like the Brooklyn Dodgers might still be in the race for the pennant. It also feels a bit like home, with well over a dozen framed photos of the proprietor’s extended family, Albert Barney, Marilyn Barney, Stevie Ray Barney (who seem to look like the 20th Century icons bearing similar names)

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Charmed, I strolled towards the counter. The joint was empty after the lunch rush. Above the hum of the television news I heard the rhythm of Barney slicing pastrami in the back. When he came out to the counter I met a somewhat sweet but shy old man. A bit like Santa Claus, a bit like Beethoven, he sang a ‘dee dee dee’ song that was all his own. Humming along, Barney served me up my very first authentic pastrami sandwich. Like my first taste of Beethoven’s 5th, it was glorious. The pastrami seemed to be jailbreaking from every opening in the bun. Like a snow shovel, the sandwich seemed to simply be the best invention for picking up this much pastrami. I tried to make it last for more than a few minutes, but the pastrami left me in this haze savoring a warm delicately salted afterglow. I battled a Cro Magnon urge to go back for another. I had come face to face with the Pastrami King.

ACT TWO

I’m not a food critic. You can tell by just looking at me that I love food, and that soon I’ll be loving food again. But I knew I had to bring in a real expert to explain to me how good Barney’s pastrami truly is in a historical context. Thankfully, my bass player’s lovely mother Judy Amster just happens to be a genuine foodie who has worked with some of the biggest names on the Food Channel. She was also raised in New York City in a close knit Jewish family that made their visits to their local deli a cherished monthly ritual. When we sat down at Barney’s and got down to business, fond memories surfaced in her eyes as she savored her sandwich. Over this time machine made from brisket, she explained that collective memory of the Holocaust and the deep seated fears of starvation it left in its wake changed the relationship subsequent generations of Jews had with food. Judy’s stories floored me. How could she have ignore the scars of the Holocaust as a young girl, when she see could see a Nazi serial number tattooed on the arm of the kind old lady that served her those first pastrami sandwiches.

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As Judy’s gut punch of a story came to a close, she told me with utmost confidence that Barney’s pastrami was excellent and absolutely authentic. I quickly tried to lighten the mood by sharing my half serious theory that genuine New York & Chicago style beef brisket pastrami was among Jewish culture’s greatest innovations. The pastrami popularized and refined by Jews in America solved the conundrum of a Hebrew God that for least 6,000 years has prohibited the consumption of Fertile Crescent’s real forbidden fruit: BACON. Judy admitted I was very funny, and then wondered aloud about the newest batch of mysteries her Pastrami sandwich created. Was Barney Jewish? How did he come to master this dying art? How did his business survive for the last twenty years selling just pastrami sandwiches and the occasional hot dog?

ACT THREE

Barney is a famously shy and private man, whose approach to avoiding an interview is best summed up in the 2012 Seattle Weekly article titled, ‘Barney Won’t Talk Pastrami’. Writer Hana Raskin’s popular piece both beams with admiration for Barney’s work, and recounts the absurd lengths she went to in ultimately failing to get an interview. It’s a recommended piece of reading that even includes speculation from a source at the Chicago Tribune regarding where Barney’s world class pastrami is being flown in from. Glancing over that article proudly displayed next to Barney’s register raised the stakes, but also inspired me on my first visit. I would simply set out to become Barney’s friend first and foremost, and if a story grew out of that, it was meant to be. There’s honestly just something special about the Mr. David Barney. As Judy explained over lunch, “it takes a certain kind of person and certain experiences to devote one’s life to feeding people.” In this era of extreme ease toward a level of Hipsterdom that is as simple as ordering a highly recommended jar of mustache wax online, it’s an honor to meet someone who is a truly master at anything. Full disclosure: I am prejudiced in this article because for months I wondered if Barney’s instincts were correct in declining various profiles and interviews. In this invasive age of social media, privacy is something to be cherished and admired. And seeming impenetrable to the Seattle Weekly was pretty cool.

As my deadline approached, I asked Barney if I could interview him for this story. I even shared a few of the bits I wrote about him, and the anecdote about Judy Amster grappling with the question of his Jewishness. To my pleasant surprise he laughed out loud with approval and agreed to meet with me the following Monday.

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On Monday October 13th, 2014, when Barney was closing up the shop, he gave me a couple of gifts. He first he made me a damn good pastrami sandwich. Then he proceeded to hand over an essay about his journey and why he has devoted the last 20 years to this shop. Through the casual interview and his own essay, he answered questions that ranged from the fact that he doesn’t happen to be Jewish, to details about his work at some of the greatest deli’s in New York City and Chicago, such as Katz Deli, The Stage Deli, and Carnegie Deli. He broke into a smile as he explained that he couldn’t tell me where he actually gets his pastrami, because unfortunately he would have to kill me. Yet all the details he set straight and even his essay, were no match for the most wonderful thing that Barney wanted to get off his chest. Over the years he always dreamed of becoming a writer. In his lifetime, Barney has written two Romance novels. But he’s never shared his work with another soul except a cousin, that loved his work and pleaded with him to share his books with a publisher. Ultimately Barney loves his shop, but the dream he deferred and never quite chased was to became an American novelist. It was a revelation so moving that I don’t want to tell you his story. I want Barney to tell you his story.

Barney’s Essay

Actually, I learned the several secrets necessary for good pastrami from several different sources. As a teenager, I worked part time for a fast food joint in Southern California. And, it was at this place where I began to learn what it takes to produce a pastrami product that almost everyone will be sure to like. After I served a hitch in the U.S.Army in the early 60’s I worked in several of the well known and famous deli’s in N.Y. City. Throughout my employment at various locations, pastrami is a food which I fell in love with. I “borrowed” methods and examples from a variety of sources concerning the spicing process for really great tasting pastrami. There is ALWAYS a delicate balance of too much or too little, and pastrami is no exception. Proper and correct spicing is the only real secret to great tasting pastrami. So, where did I learn? I learned from several different sources and no one actually “taught” me. I always kept my eyes and ears open and because I did, “they” taught me without even knowing.

The only difference, albeit a big difference, between corned beef and pastrami is the fact that, corned beef is finished in the brine solution. Pastrami however, is removed from the brine and rubbed with your choice of ingredients, and then, it is lightly smoked. When I receive my pastrami, it has completed the brine process. I slice and spice to complete this process. And, proper spicing is of the utmost importance to insure that you end up with a satisfying pastrami.

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The reason why I decided to open a sandwich store featuring pastrami is rather extensive, but, I promise to be brief. I hurt my back in early 1992 and found myself unemployed as a result. I took a couple of years off and all of a sudden, I thought, “Why not, why not open a store featuring really good pastrami? This is when and where my experience in my early work years really paid off. I mean, I already knew what it took to produce good pastrami, so the next step was to locate a prime supplier. Naturally, I wrote everything down, it would be impossible for me to remember everything I had learned so many years earlier. The names of the many suppliers was rather short, maybe twelve to fifteen names. So, after selecting the one which I thought would best serve my needs, I flew to their location and we began to discuss what I wanted, and could they deliver such a product.

So, in February 1994 I opened Barney’s Pastrami, Inc. In it’s present location.

The only reason why I serve pastrami in the first place is merely because, I love the stuff, especially when it’s prepared properly. I have always tried to maintain integrity within the spicing process, never too much, never too little.

In the end, it is not about me, not about the pastrami I serve. I owe any measure of success I have achieved due to the long list of loyal and faithful customers who continue to enter my small store. They are the ones who are responsible for the longevity of Barney’s Pastrami. Without them, there would be absolutely no use for me to be in business.

So, if you ask me about the pastrami, I will tell you what I can without giving away any valuable secrets. If you ask me why I decided to sell pastrami in the first place, I will tell you. But, every conversation begins and ends with my valued customers, they are the reason, the only reason why I continue to keep my doors open. I appreciate each and every one of them, much more than they know.

– David Barney

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