Location Lit: For travelers to New York City, Ben Ryder Howe's memoir "My Korean Deli"
Apr 5, 2011
Location Lit: A periodic feature on books you’ll want to be reading while in a particular destination.
My first New York City deli was on the Upper West Side, near a college boyfriend’s apartment. It was all new for a girl from the American suburbs—the grungy cracked linoleum, the towering narrow aisles, the unfriendly Asian proprietor, the counter crowded with unfamiliar items massed in plastic wrap, such as sesame-honey bars, halvah, and black-and-white cookies—but it was also thrilling, an inconceivably convenient 3a.m. source of white Toblerone bars, cigarettes, flowers and Sapporo beer in big blue cans. And it wasn’t my last first-deli, either. I now think of delis as access-points to a neighborhood, or to New York itself, each one with a distinct personality, a unique thumbprint made from small perishables and weird real estate.
Some second-firsts: the two competing delis across the street from each other by the first NYC apartment I lived in post-college, each with mysterious practices that schooled me in various ways. One stored stryofoam cups for iced coffee pre-loaded with an unappealing, fused, melted and refrozen lump of ice in the freezer, and served the coffee with milk and sugar unless the customer specified otherwise. Inexplicably, the counter-guys at this deli called me “Mommy.” (Mami!, my Puerto Rican roommate explained, when I finally remembered to be irritated about it all the way home.) The deli across the street was more upscale, sold fresh produce and was open late enough that it became my slightly shameful post-bars junk-food stopping point. I could never tell if the Korean guy around my age who worked the night shift found me appealing or immoral… or just one of many drunk 21-year-old girls in need of a midnight pint of Ben & Jerry’s. And this being New York of blissfully freeing street-level anonymity, I never found out.
Experienced New Yorkers get used to their delis and stop noticing them as much, but it’s still a cause for celebration to read a memoir devoted to the behind-the-scenes at this mysterious city institution, especially one written by an outsider to the deli business, whose observations have that alien-newcomer freshness. Ben Ryder Howe’s My Korean Deli also, in addition to being a deli-story, is a boroughs story and a melting-pot story and media-world bildungsroman which lifts the book out of the writer-with-stunt-job genre and into a class with recent great New York City novels like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. The common threads of this genre are a perfect evocation of the cityscape at street level and a story that ranges across boroughs and immigrant populations and social classes, feeling both timeless and true to life in today’s New York.
During the time period covered by the book (early 00s), Ryder Howe was an editor at storied NYC lit magazine The Paris Review, in its original incarnation as the pet project of old-money gadfly George Plimpton. Ryder Howe’s wife, Gab, is a Korean-American whose family lives on Staten Island and whose mother’s dream is to open a deli. The couple donate their life-savings to the project, move into the mother-in-law’s basement on Staten Island and start to learn the deli business from the ground up.
For anyone who has shopped at a deli, it’s fascinating to learn about the details like where that steam-table food comes from (yes, it’s a single central source), why the coffee is so terrible, what determines whether or not a deli sells cigarettes, and just how difficult it is to run a small business in NYC. The section on the lottery machine is particularly hilarious and inspired:
“The lottery machine, a clunky blue cash register-like contraption that as it spits out scraps of paper makes noise like a screwdriver inserted into an electric pencil sharpener, sits next to the actual cash register in the checkout area, forming a bulwark against the reaching arms of shoplifters. A few days after we bought the store I asked our liaison from the state lottery commission how to go about getting rid of it.
‘Get rid of it?’ fluttered Glenda. ‘No one ever gets rid of their lottery machine!’
‘Why not?’ I asked. For a moment I had a vision of the machine trailing me around to the end of my life, like an unkillable parasite. I would never be able to escape the horrible grinding noise, and there would always be an old woman in a nightgown and army boots standing next to me and shouting, ‘Three! Seven! Two! Four!’ ”
Much of the book’s interest though, comes from the author’s observations about cultural identity, both his wife’s Korean-American version, and his own waspy Boston-Brahmin variant. The deli, as it turns out, is just what it seems like to a newcomer to New York—an open door, an access point, a place where you learn about yourself and your expectations by coming into glancing social contact with the wildly diverse community of a single few blocks in New York City.
Other reviews of My Korean Deli: