THERE’S nothing like a NJ Transit train ride from Newark to get a girl in the mood for a giant, overwhelming, monstrous meal in a low key Brooklyn-style corner Philadelphia delicatessen.
Lucky for me, the day was beautiful and crisp; the kind of day that makes you hunger for robins and home-made movies and open-toed sandals. D was sick and wrapped up in a comforting white scarf, carrying 480% of her daily required intake of Vitamin C in the shape of an enormous thermos of Tropicana. She had broken her fever the night before and had a powerful need for nourishment.
So there we were: two hungry girls at the intersection of 20th at Market, with two different appetites, and with a will to make it to south 4th Street for the famed Challah French Toast.
Today, Philadelphia was a kind lady who knows her own worth. She led us into sunny by-streets and across green-lighted intersections; she pointed out historical buildings, blew confectioned pastry-shop scents at us, and sang glorious birdsong. She took us on a winding path through the throbbing line at Jim’s Steaks, and walked us personally up to the stoop of Famous 4th Street Delicatessen to hold the door open.
We found ourselves in a cozy corner table overlooking the street. From here, we looked out on the passers-by who, wearing boots and coats and pushing perambulators, didn’t know the treat they were missing. Holding our breath in both delight and the horror of indecision, we ordered: the Challah French Toast ($11.00) and the Corned Beef Reuben Sandwich ($12.50). My orange juice came in a clean Nantucket Nectars bottle (did you know the average water temperature in Nantucket in July is 73F?) and was accompanied by a palate-whetting pickled cabbage salad loaded with three giant pickles. Mmmmm.
The French Toast was enormous. The Reuben was daunting. The fries were mountainous. And the Onion Mashed Potatoes…ah, love. Add a spattering of ketchup, and you’ve got heaven on the end of a fork.
New Jersey always gives me an appetite, and Famous 4th (established 1923, so they certainly know their craft) is exactly the place to conquer it. We could only eat half of our meal; the leftovers (2/3 of the french toast, half the reuben, and almost the entirety of the mashed potatoes) were donated to Toby. After heating them in the oven, he licked up every morsel and collapsed in his chair with the New York Times Book Review. “What a fabulous pile of meats,” he murmured when he could catch his breath. “For this, I’ll sprain my jaw any day.” (The reuben does indeed give your mandible an extensive workout if you abstain from using your cutlery.)
To adapt Garret Freymann-Weyr, “A good [meal] is a reflection of some kind of truth.” Indeed, we found a profound epiphany at Famous 4th: when ill, in transit, or otherwise hungered, sometimes your eyes do grow larger than your stomach. But if you surround yourself with laughter, friends, and shared interests, one large meal can extend into two or even three, and can take on an epic life of its own. Much like a childhood memory or a favorite book, spine creased and paper worn by rapt fingers, a satisfied stomach has its own heartbeat.