Washington -- It was a dark and stormy day. So I ate deli.
Lots of deli. Three chopped livers, three corned beefs, three pastramis, three hot dogs, and six slices of cheesecake.
After all that, the day seemed brighter.
The occasion was a dueling delis contest among three delicatessens in the Baltimore-Washington area -- Attman's of Baltimore, Hofberg's of Montgomery county, and Carnegie of Vienna, Va.
The contest, open to all noshers, was a fund-raising effort to benefit children with cancer. You paid $10 to get in, and ate until you got tired or got gas. Also eating was a panel of six judges, including me, who ruled on whomever had the best whatever.
The final rulings were: Attman's, best dog and tied for first in cheesecake with Carnegie; Hofberg, best pastrami and corned beef; and Carnegie, best chopped liver.
This contest was held at the Embassy Suites hotel in Washington, which, lemme tell you, at first seemed to me a strange place to eat deli food. The hotel was not far from Dupont Circle and was pretty fancy. I mean there were rugs on the floor. I'm not used to eating overstuffed sandwiches where there is carpeting. What are you supposed to do if you spill a little mustard? Call the maid?
Moreover, I was a little worried about doing "deli" in our nation's capital. A good deli is supposed to have a wise-guy attitude, an "edge." When you mention "edge" in Washington, most people there think you're talking about the name of your personal computer.
But, hey! The day proved me wrong. Those Washingtonians gave me good deli.
It was raining when I arrived, but once I got inside the hotel meeting room, and smelled the food, my dark mood improved. There were several signs of good deli.
First of all, the coffee was hot, strong and black. And secondly, I saw that we judges got to clear our palates with big pickles. That made me cheery.
That bubbly mood cost me. In the presence of the deli crowd, you can be scornful, but not effervescent. Mort Sahl, yes. Pollyanna, no. As I was greeting one my fellow judges, Washington brewer Gary F. Heurich, I told him, "I really like your beer."
When another judge, Marcia Harris of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, heard that remark, she rolled her eyes. "Have you ever met a beer you don't like?" she deadpanned. Tough crowd.
The irreverence continued when another judge, Henry Dinardo of Windows Catering, wanted to know why this wasn't going to be a "blind" tasting. He was told that this collection of judges already have enough problems. Adding more problems, such as voting for a sandwich by number instead of by the deli it came from, were more mental gymnastics than the judges could handle.
Loyalties were out in the open. For instance, Laurence Levitan, a state senator as well as deli judge, contended that his district, Montgomery County, did deli better than Annapolis, the state capital.
And most of the employees of the competing delis weren't shy about proclaiming their food the best in the universe.
Jeff Baylin, the designated server and schmoozer for the Hofberg deli, claimed at various times, that his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother had made the rye bread, sliced the pastrami and corned the beef. All "fresh this morning."
Baltimore's Stuart Attman, said his deli was most discriminating about matching its mustards to its meats. For the hot dog a brown, "bran" mustard was applied, he said. For the pastrami and corned beef, a yellow deli mustard was slathered on the bread.
Attman also touted his deli's chocolate cheesecake as having flecks of "real gold." One judge replied, "I'll save it for my dentist."
Only Rose Cohen of Carnegie was mild mannered. She simply put the food in front of the judges, and smiled sweetly. She was as smooth as her deli's chopped liver.
There was one judge who was quiet. He was so well behaved, I couldn't figure out how he fit in.
Then, at the end of the contest, he stood to announce the winners. The minute he opened his mouth, I knew why this guy was there.
The guy turned out to be an announcer, for WCXR radio in Washington. His name was Paul Harris. At our end of the table, we called him "The Voice."
He had a good one -- deep, strong and clear. You could hear him over the crowd. And in this crowd, that was saying something.