Rolled Beef, an Endangered Deli Meat
As a kid I enjoyed rolled beef at my local delis in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, first at Aaron Grossman's humble spot on Avenue H, and later at Golden Caterers on Avenue J. Up until the 1970s (when, it seems, everything started changing), it was a given that if you ate at a kosher deli rolled beef would be available. Now it has gone the way of the egg cream.
So just what is rolled beef? I was never quite sure, so I did some research to augment my own impressions. First of all, it's a cold cut. It's served cold, as opposed to pastrami and corned beef, which are best hot. It's cured in a way similar to them, seasoned with black pepper and garlic and who knows what else. The meat, when sliced, has a relatively smooth finish, with a nice fat to meat ratio. A whole rolled beef has a circumference larger than most salamis and smaller than most mortadellas (pardon the treyf; it's only for the size comparison; this you should allow). It has a red color from the curing not unlike pastrami. You might say it's like a cross between a pastrami and a salami. You might also liken it to a Jewish version of pancetta or perhaps capicola (treyf again--feh!).
I never knew what cut of beef it was made from. One poster on a Chowhound thread wrote, "Some producers used brisket (which was, literally, rolled up); others used different forequarter cuts." Until I learn otherwise I'll have to trust that claim. The thread on Chowhound, incidentally, was initially on the subject of a related Toronto deli specialty called baby beef, made from veal, an item I'd previously never heard of. Baby beef is available at Pancer's deli in Toronto.
A post on the blog Save the Deli made the following erroneous claim: "Rolled Beef sandwich: this is a meat that only two delis carry in all of America [my emphasis]. It is difficult to make and expensive, but oh my good Hebrew lord it tastes wonderful. Like incredibly creamy roast beef, super duper trooper tender, with just enough pepper to give it a kick." That was in a piece about the Second Avenue Deli, one of the places that does carry it for certain. I believe the other place the writer had in mind is Sarge's, where I recently had my first rolled beef sandwich in years. A little research online revealed that it also appears on the menus of Artie's on the Upper West Side as well as Ben's Best in Rego Park (Queens). Rolled beef is no longer on the menu of the Carnegie Deli, but it was in 1985, when a delivery guy vanished into thin air with some rolled beef sandwiches among other items.
As far as expensive, it certainly is at Second Avenue Deli, where a sandwich goes for a whopping $21.95 compared to $14.25 for pastrami. Yet at Sarge's a rolled beef sandwich costs $10.95, the same as a pastrami sandwich. What's with the big difference? It's hard to imagine that the two delis get it from different suppliers, as it's such a rare item, but who knows?
A Google search didn't reveal too much more about rolled beef, but I did find several references in literature and music.
In the 1940s, Anton Chekhov was seen eating a rolled beef sandwich at Lindy's. Not really, but in the surreal New York of S.J. Perelman. In his story "Whatever Goes Up," Perelman wrote, "The public don’t want to think–they want to laugh. Look at Chekhov. We looked at Chekhov, who had just come in and was having a rolled-beef sandwich and a bottle of Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic in the corner."
Alfred Kazin waxed elegiac about the deli of yore in his memoir A Walker in the City:
But our greatest delight in all seasons was "delicatessen"–hot spiced corned beef, pastrami, rolled beef, hard salami, soft salami, chicken salami, bologna, frankfurter "specials" and the thinner, wrinkled hot dogs always taken with mustard and relish and sauerkraut, and whenever possible, to make the treat fully real, with potato salad, baked beans and french fries which had been bubbling in the black wire fryer deep in the iron pot.
Now that sentence is quite a mouthful!
But I think my favorite rolled beef reference comes from Mickey Katz. Mickey Katz, if you don't know, was a Jewish comic musician popular in the 'forties and 'fifties. A singer and clarinetist, he performed Jewish takeoffs on familiar songs and current pop hits with hot klezmer breaks. I knew his music as a kid because my grandfather had his recordings. I fondly remember such tunes as "The Little White Knish That Cried," "I'm a Schlemiel of Fortune," "Borscht Riders in the Sky," "Bagel Call Rag," and "Duvid Crockett" ("he flicked him a chicken when he was only three"). Mickey Katz was also the father of actor Joel Grey. Katz gave his version of "Sixteen Tons" a deli twist: "You load sixteen tons of hot salami, corned beef, rolled beef, and hot pastrami. . ."
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Note: When I had a rolled beef sandwich at Sarge's my camera punked out and I had forgotten to bring spare batteries. I did, however, find this photo of rolled beef online.