Mushroom Barley Soup Memories

It’s unusually cold, even for December, that first winter in New York City. I’m living in the East Village and studying for grad school finals with my lab partner Robbie, who I think befriended me mostly so that I could tutor him in biochemistry, which he happens to be failing. In return, Robbie is getting me all tied up in knots by refusing to become involved with me because he is, as he puts it, no good for me.

Think Billy Crystal in the first part of Harry met Sally. Now make him cuter, even more cynical and a real sleep-around, then kick him out of his previous school for dealing pot and you’ve got Robbie, the not-so-nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. An irresistible draw for a 21-year old Catholic girl still fresh from the Philadelphia suburbs.

It’s been dark for over 2 hours, and we’ve been sitting at the kitchen table in my 3rd Floor walk-up on St Mark’s Place since just past noon, reviewing the pathways for carbohydrate metabolism. “I’m starving”, says Robbie. “Let’s go for some Deli.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

He looks at me like I am the most pitiful bumpkin on the face of the earth. In fact, that is the word he actually uses. “Pitiful” he says, pulling me out of my seat. “C’mon. My treat.”

It was to be his only generous gesture in our entire relationship, aside from his initial refusal to get involved with me.

There is a line at the door of the 2nd Ave Deli, something I had never before seen at a restaurant. Especially on such a cold night. The maitre-d’ (could it have been Abe the owner himself?) takes pity on us, and passes out little plastic containers of warm applesauce and plastic spoons to the waiting diners huddled in the blustery entryway.

“We should have ordered in”, mutters Robbie, as he stomps his feet to keep warm. He is wearing only a hooded sweatshirt with a jean jacket on top.

I lick my spoon from the warmth of my big brown fur coat (10 bucks at Trash and Vaudeville). Robbie hated that coat. “That wouldn’t help,” I correct him, still in tutoring mode. “We’d still have to be out here. Plus, I don’t see a take-out window, do you?”

After staring at me for a full 30 seconds with a look of incredulity and mild disdain, Robbie explains the fine art of New York City Restaurant Delivery.

I give him a look of incredulity but not-so-mild distain. “I cannot believe that so many people have the nerve to call another human being and ask them to bring them their food in bad weather when they can go out and get it themselves!”

“Give yourself some time,”replies Robbie.

He was right, of course. But it would be almost a full year before I could gather the Chutzpah to order in for myself, one rainy night in the following November. The delivery boy turned out to be an old man. I felt so guilty I think I gave him the entire contents of my wallet as a tip, and then didn’t order in again for a year. Don’t worry – I’m over it now.

The line outside the Deli moves surprisingly quickly. Soon, they let us inside, past the long deli counter to a small table in the middle of the noisy, bustling room, where we struggle to fit our notebooks on a tabletop already crammed with water glasses and bowls of fresh pickles and cole slaw.

And it is there, while sitting at that table grilling Robbie over and over again on the biochemical reactions of the Kreb Cycle, that I have my first bowl of mushroom barley soup.

Eleusinian Initiation Rites

Now, you may not know this, but barley has religious significance dating back to ancient Greece. There, it was used to make kykeon, a nectar used in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were the initiation ceremonies for the cult of Demeter and Persophone. It is said that the barley drink, now thought to have been contaminated with ergot, a neuroactive mold, led to psychedelic experiences that convinced the initiates that they had witnessed unspeakable, divine mysteries that satisfied the deepest longings of the human heart.

Is it so surprising, then, that I was to be initiated into the mysteries of the New York Delicatessen by ingesting that same magical grain? Believe me, that bowl of mushroom barley soup was the closest thing to a religious experience that I have ever had. I had drunk the holy water, been baptized in the broth and seen the light. And I would never be the same again.

I remember calling my father that night. “I’ve been raised in the wrong religion. Forget the church – I’m converting to Deli!” I hoped he understood. This was, after all, a man who ate Kielbasa like it was the holy host itself.

Soon thereafter, I would experience my first hot pastrami sandwich, my first cheese blintz and my first bowl of matzah ball soup. I would learn not to order my corned beef sandwich with cheese after a waiter gave me “the look”. I would know the difference between plain and marble rye and what a Dr Brown’s Cel-Ray was. I would, in short, became a New Yorker.


Dismantling the 2nd Ave Deli (more photos at

Not surprisingly, Robbie and I parted ways shortly after he passed biochemistry and, unable to find me to share the good news (I was home in Philly for Christmas), slept with my best friend Shari to celebrate. Shari was a fellow native New Yorker, and equally experienced, so I guess it was a good match, at least for one night.

Sadly, too, the story of the 2nd Avenue Deli was also to end, though not for some years (and for me, many meals) thereafter, when that fabled restaurant closed its doors forever in January, 2006.

So, I hear you asking, why tell this tale now?

Contrary to what you may think, it is not because I have found the recipe for mushroom barley soup in the 2nd Avenue Deli Cookbook (although it is, indeed, in that book, and on Epicurious).

No, it is because I want to tell you that last weekend I made a mushroom barley soup that is even better than the one I first tasted at the 2nd Avenue Deli once upon a time. You read me right. Even better. It is based almost entirely upon a recipe from, who else, my mother-in-law Irene.

As post-impressionism was both an extension of Impressionism and a rejection of that style’s inherent limitations, so this soup, made in the style I like to call post-Deli, both reflects and improves upon its predecessor, the great mushroom barley soup at the 2nd Avenue Deli.

And so I share it with you now, Dear Reader, in the hopes that when you make and enjoy it, you will think of that fabled dish once eaten in that now lost New York City landmark. As for me, my memories will be of a more personal nature, of a cold December night in the East Village when my New York gastronomical conversion began.


This is a very interesting recipe – you basically make soup twice – first a double broth, then removing these veggies, and making the soup itself with fresh veggies, cooking the meat even longer until it is succulent. It’s even better the second day.

1 tbsp olive oil
1-1/2 lbs. top rib, (flanken, with bone)
2-3 cans beef, veggie and/or mushroom broth (I used both beef and veggie)
Water to cover
1 onion, studded with two cloves
2 carrots, cut in thirds
1 large rib of celery, cut in thirds
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf

1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 rib celery, diced
½ cup barley, rinsed
1-1/2 lbs. fresh mushrooms, chopped coarsely. (I used a combination of white and baby belles)
A few dried porcini or shitake mushrooms soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
Salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot. Lightly salt and pepper the top rib and brown it in the oil. Add broth and enough water to cover meat. Add cut onion, carrots, celery, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer until meat is almost tender (about an hour).

Remove the cooked vegetables and discard or use separately. Add diced carrot, celery, onion, barley, and salt and pepper. Simmer ½ hour. Add all mushrooms and the liquid in which the dried mushrooms were soaking (strain it first). Continue cooking about another ½ hour or until the meat is tender. If you have time, refrigerate overnight and remove the fat. (I just skimmed it ater rmoving the veggies the first go round, and ate it that nght. It was not too fatty.) Reheat and enjoy!

If soup is too thick, add water to correct consistency. For an extra special flavor add two marrow bones when you add the chopped vegetables.

Category: Food

11 Responses to Mushroom Barley Soup Memories

  1. I am so damned glad you are back to writing, especially about food. I was salivating waiting for you to get to the goods–the recipe. I believe I’ll have to make a pot of that this weekend!!

    (Friend of Rosemary)

  2. I am glad you use your powers for good and not evil!

    So what ever happened to Robbie? Death by warts? Death by pastrami?

    Inquiring minds want to know…

  3. Schtruggling:

    I found myself asking the same question as I was finishing writing this post, so of course, I googled him. (His real name, of course, is not Robbie, but all the rest is more or less true, though I left a lot out. This is, after all, a public blog. And I need to have a little dirt left for the book…)

    Anyway, it appears that, like all young men who sow their wild oats (some sowing a bit widely than others), he has settled into a respectable profession, the one he was aiming for at the time I knew him.

    I wish him all the best.

  4. great post 🙂 mushroom barley soup is as (ashkenazi) jewish a dish as latkes are, i think. i have many memories of it taken from the fridge where it always seemed to have thickened and gelatinized, and needed to be thinned with extra water. it was always better the next day, too. i also seem to associate it with cold winter days.

    deli food is comfort food in my books. too bad it’s so fattening. ehh, who thinks of that once you’ve shoved the sandwich in your mouth and had the first bite?

  5. yum yum :)) i love mushroom barley soup. just did one on my blog recently but that was has shiitakes and baby spinach and soy sauce of all things.

    the only thing i never liked about some versions were how thick they got from the barley. oh well, once reheated and watered down they’re just as good as new.

    hope you’re well.
    regards, bb!

  6. Thick mushroom barley soup is the whole POINT! Ya gotta be able to stand a spoon up in it, or it’s just not the real thing.

    Great blog entry, btw.

  7. i go from food blog to food blog, looking for (comfort) food. i've been an orphan forever. but this soup….can't wait.

  8. wow, if only, if only I could go to the famed nyc for just 2 days, just to taste a real jewish deli experience. but no, I live in slc utah where scandinavian and british people settled it. the best we had for dinner was mashed potatoes, a beef roast cooked done, never rare, a vegetable from the garden, like yummy corn on the cob, a green salad with parsley and tomatoes from the garden and maybe a peach cobbler for dessert. But everything had no spice. I had to bring a young woman from India to live with me for 5 months and every morning when she cooked her curry I had to have her open the window or my eyes would sting, but I have to say, I learned to love the complex tastes of curried food and rice. I don’t think I’ve ever get to nyc and I don’t think anyone will open a jewish deli here and I guess unless I can find someone who makes these jewish foods I won’t get a chance to eat any of it. sad.

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