Coincidentally, the day that I decided to try Hershel’s East Side Deli at the Reading Terminal Market, my companion watched A Touch of Genie, a 1974 porn comedy directed by Joe Sarno, in which a nebbishy Jewish man, constantly berated by his overbearing mother, finds a genie in a bottle and wishes himself into the lives of various porn actors. From Portnoy’s less-than-hygienic use of a piece of liver as masturbation tool to, well, the apple pie homage to Roth’s novel in the teen sex comedy American Pie, it seems that a line can be drawn that connects food to sex to certain stereotypes about Jewish masculinity. As I munched happily on a pastrami sandwich, care of Hershel’s, I mused on these connections. The pastrami–on rye with mustard–was good. Not the gargantuan portions seen in so many delis, but a hefty sandwich nonetheless, full of slices of appropriately fatty, grainy meat with that lovely strip of spices on the end. More mustard would have elevated the sandwich to transcendent, but it satisfied, probably as much as, though in a different register than, Sarno’s film.
Feminist scholars have long argued that food is a structuring metaphor for sexuality, differentiated by gender. Women are depicted as animals to be hunted and devoured. Close-ups of female gentialia in hardcore pornography are called “meat shots.” Or in the case of A Touch of Genie, compared to a bagel and lox. On the other hand, male sexuality’s connection with food is often in terms of power. Men are the devourers. Men have voracious appetites, in and out of the bedroom. I picked up a pickle spear, accompanying my sandwich. It sagged a bit, but the big bite I took was garlicky, good. Seeing a dill seed clinging to the surface, I chomped again, enjoying the round feel of it. Generally speaking, women are the eaten and men the eaters, but those cultural representations of Jewish masculinity, of course, are something other. Insufficiently masculine these men have desire, but no outlet.
Of course, this image is constructed in relation to the other: the mother who wants her children to remain that way. In scores of jokes, the Jewish mother uses food as a weapon, a way to assert power. “Press 1 for chicken soup,” says the message on the Jewish mother’s answering machine. “If you want matzoh balls with the soup press 2. If you want to know how am I feeling, you are calling the wrong number since NOBODY ever asks me how I am feeling. Who knows? I could even be dead by now.” Stereotype that it is, I find it compelling–in a time when women had few sources of authority, food was a method of love and control.
I went back to Hershel’s over the weekend, deciding that, delicate lady that I am, a brined meat binge was what I needed. I thought I’d give the Reuben a try. Corned beef is a guilty pleasure, but I’d never tried this version with Russian dressing, sauerkraut and swiss. Staffed by men working furiously to carve steaming, dripping hunks of meat, the deli was the antithesis of mamaleh’s kitchen–efficient to the point of brusqueness. Assembly-line speed resulted in a beautiful Reuben, the bread singed with grill marks, with more pickle spears and a can of weirdly astringent Cel-ray soda.
When I finally dug in, I thought, again, more mustard, which is probably a comment on my tastes rather than the quality of the sandwich. Don’t get me wrong, it was good. Stuffed to near explosion, meat kept dropping to the waxed paper it was wrapped in, necessitating a great deal of finger licking. I’d give the pastrami the edge in a mano-a-mano battle between the two, though my companion preferred the Reuben. Later that night, we watched the last few minutes of A Touch of Genie. The genie comes onto the main character, who misses her innuendo. After she disappears, he finds himself back in his humdrum life, sharing the breakfast table with his mother. A downbeat ending for a sex comedy until, emboldened by his recent adventures, he asks out a pretty girl who comes into his antique shop. Sex, food, ethnicity, and masculinity, knotted together.
Recommended: pastrami on rye, lots of mustard; on an earlier trip; I’d tried a knish and found it light and tasty; Joe Sarno’s movies, if you like sexploitation films; Carol Adam’s The Sexual Politics of Meat if you like feminist theorizing about gender and food.