WHAT WE'RE going to do -- Marc Attman's idea, not mine -- is have a "How to eat Jewish deli" class on Corned Beef Row on Friday, which is great in every aspect, except if you're Catholic and just gave up meat for Lent. I don't know if one needs archdiocesan dispensation for the purposes of this one-hour educational experience, but I think you could make a case -- instruction in the proper preparation and consumption of a corned beef sandwich being God's work.
This all started a few weeks ago when, in relating an otherwise amusing story about a northern Baltimore County woman's effort to get through the snow-clogged roads to Attman's landmark delicatessen on Lombard Street, a reader of this column reported that the intrepid customer ordered corned beef on white bread. And the customer herself later admitted to having relations who ate corned beef on white bread with mayonnaise.
This led to a remarkable outpouring of e-mail and phone calls to this columnist, all from other readers who said they were appalled that Attman's corned beef -- or Lenny's, or Weiss' -- would be treated in this manner.
They all recited the famous Jewish mantra: "Corned beef, rye, mustard." They found any alteration of this formula an outrage.
"Didn't you know," asked Joe Steffens, "that, whenever someone uses white bread or puts mayo on corned beef, somewhere a Jew dies?"
Augie Ciresi, in Harford County, related how, while once in the old Jack's on Corned Beef Row, he heard a woman make like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and order a corned beef sandwich on white bread with lettuce, tomato and mayo. The counter guy shot back, "Would you like peanut butter and jelly on that, too?"
"I once walked into the Knish Shop in Pikesville and ordered a corned beef on rye -- with ketchup," Alan Friedenberg admitted. "The lady behind the counter glared at me and said, 'Are you sure you're Jewish?'"
A note from a woman known to me in e-mail as "The Redhead" suggested that such culinary deviance can lead to marital troubles: "My ex-husband not only eats corned beef on white bread, but with mayonnaise and ketchup on it. Utterly disgusting."
Many readers insisted that a corned beef sandwich could be served with Swiss cheese or coleslaw, on pumpernickel or a Kaiser roll.
I can only cite in response what I've been taught -- by college friends from New York, newspaper associates, friends in the orthodox-deli community and the late Seymour Attman himself: The classic corned beef sandwich is served on rye with mustard.
"Help me out then," wrote a Bolton Hill reader. "If that is the proper way to eat a corned beef sandwich, why do so many delis, even the famous ones in New York City, make Reubens, with Russian dressing and sauerkraut?"
Because people like Reubens. But a Reuben is a Reuben.
Same with a Black Russian. A Black Russian is corned beef served on pumpernickel with Russian dressing.
Those are sandwiches that use corned beef, but they are not classic corned beef sandwiches. They are the creations of people who subscribe to the "more is more" school of deli science. Purists believe less is more -- that, to be truly savored, corned beef must be served on rye with mustard.
More than one of my fellow purists wrote to say Attman's should be sanctioned by some delicatessen regulatory council for preparing a corned beef sandwich in any other way.
Marc Attman, son of the late Seymour, responded with some perspective that might put the purists at ease:
"For your information and that of your readers, 99.5 percent of all corned beef sandwiches are served with mustard, which is our own brand of deli mustard that we have used for the last 40 years. ... However, some people just do not know, or were not taught properly. As my dad would say, we never accept a white-bread-with-mayo order without causing some embarrassment to the order-giver."
Attman wants to conduct some public education on the subject, to try to bring into the corned-beef-rye-mustard fold the ones who have been lost in the wilderness of white bread and mayo. So, he's invited the people who started all this -- Denise Tausendschoen and her corned-beef-on-white family -- to lunch Friday "to help them expand their deli horizons."
A noble cause.