Steven Berkoff tells us what he does between scenes when he’s in LA. Clue: it involves a sandwich that tastes of home

By Steven Berkoff, February 27, 2014
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A mouthful, even for a leading actor: Berkoff at home in his beloved Canters (Photo: Oliver Crowley)

A mouthful, even for a leading actor: Berkoff at home in his beloved Canters (Photo: Oliver Crowley)

Sometimes, one comes across a cafe, restaurant, diner, greasy spoon, deli or bistro, that feels so much like home you feel safe and secure as soon as you enter the door.

“At last, sanctuary,” your body cries from every nerve. Is some ancient sliver of genetic memory being awakened? I feel a glow within and know I will be received like a hallowed guest.

Something about Canters Deli drew me into its bosom when I first arrived in Los Angeles 30 years ago. It opened in the Hollywood heyday of the 30s and has been going ever since, 24 hours a day. So, no matter where you are in the world, you might wake in the night and know Canters is alive and throbbing — the machines slicing, the soup bubbling.

This is a deli like no other. Its large rooms encompass the diverse world that is LA; the old, the young, Jews, gentiles. And all easily melt together. For what they come for is, after all, Jewish soul food. It is not complex, nor mysteriously strewn with esoteric flavours or weird configurations. This is home.

Pickles — and a menu the size of the Book of Exodus — are put before you

This is the taste of mamele from the shtetles of Romania and Warsaw, of mama’s table in the East End. This nourishes, if not the body — for its schmaltz would flatten a cart horse — but for the soul, for the spirit.

When I was in LA, as I was recently for a play which did not work out, my consolation was to go to Canters.

It might be 30 degrees outside and the perfect day for alfresco salads and beachy views. But in Canters it will be cool and the outrageous Californian sun will be dimmed.

Yes, on a table for one you do not feel alone, for the souls of the million departed noshers sit like ghostly wraiths with you; like invisible dybbuks as you drink your chicken soup with kreplach.

A menu the size of the Book of Exodus is placed before you, and as you study the holy liturgy, a plate of pickles arrives as a free offering to crunch on while waiting for your order.

The large waitress adds her benediction: “These are made here, home-made.” I gingerly pick up a cornered slice and crush it between my teeth and out spurts subliminal images of mum in our little kitchen in our cosy council estate in Manor House. Sitting with her, with her grubby apron, a flag of aging Jewish womanhood, the whole room swims with these images which quickly surface and fade. But I am home.

A strange feeling of contentment floods my being and I devour the entire plate as if to crush my past into me. My chicken soup with a matzo ball arrives. My cup runneth over. My mother’s soup was better but this draws me to her, to Friday nights long after I had left Manor House yet still made the weekly journey to sup at the table, her soup washing away all the frustrations of an unemployed actor and there, sitting at her little table I would be at peace again.

I just have to order the famous corned beef sandwich, and although there’s a choice of more than 20, including one for dedicated fressers, only “a corned beef and pastrami piled high on rye, a full side order of potato salad and coleslaw” will do.

I sip lemon tea and wait. Most of the waitresses are huge and wear black pants and a Canters logo on their T-shirts. The waiters are all slim and fast but it is the waitresses who give that dose of emotional schmaltz.

“I’ll bring you another plate of pickles dear. . .” Now I can see the long extinct Marks Deli of Wentworth Street in the East End, the huge jars of haimishe pickles curled in their jars like green snakes and Mr Marks with his large luminous brown eyes slicing the smoked salmon, sometimes holding out a sliver for me to sample on the end of his knife.

It is my last day in LA, a hot Saturday and I want to go to Canters one last time. I don’t know when I’ll be here again. I feel my eyes welling up but resist the temptation to let it all out.

My sandwich arrives; legendarily huge. It is a full meal and the sliced corned beef needs a gigantic mouth to crush it. First, I swallow a large forkful of the slaw and now, I’m ready. I gently lift off the lid of rye bread and anoint it with mustard and slowly, very slowly, chew my way through it.

Of course, I came here so many times when doing movies and plays. I sat here so many times to write. I see the old Jews thread their wobbling way in and out. They are happy, for this is not cordon blue. This is just their “outside kitchen”.

I am now half way through my second plate of cucumbers. I wish to shove as much of America inside me before I step on that ghastly plane to London. I devour slowly the entire sandwich leaving the bread behind. I am full but not stuffed. Just enough to block out the bitterness of leaving.

“I have been coming here for over 30 years”, I tell the waitress. I am sublimely happy and my young friend Oliver takes a picture of me and my sandwich. Yes, I am alive and Canters is still here and hopefully will always be. And I am part of it and now it is part of me.

I slide into my rented Mustang and speed back to my hotel on Venice Beach. It is over.

Copyright: Steven Berkoff

    Last updated: 1:11pm, February 27 2014