Corned Beef and Cadillacs

I’m not one to COMPLAIN, but being an observant Jew at a car magazine has its challenges. For one, there’s one day every week, from sundown on Friday until one hour after sunset on Saturday, during which I do not drive, in honor of the Jewish Sabbath. Even if it’s a really, really cool car. I’m also limited in where I go to eat: Michigan may still be the epicenter of the U.S. auto industry, but it’s hardly a destination for kosher food.

You can thus imagine my dilemma this past summer when old college friend Max Greenberg told me about Sixth & Rye in Washington, D.C., a mobile kosher deli created by celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn and operated by the city’s historic Sixth and I synagogue. I decide instantly that I will not rest until I’ve eaten there. The catch? The day of rest. The restaurant operates only on Fridays at lunchtime, mere hours before the onset of the Sabbath. Taking off work and going to D.C. for the weekend is out of the question, as I need almost all my vacation time for the yearly fusillade of Jewish holidays. (Passover, four days; Feast of Weeks, two days; Rosh Hashanah, two days; Yom Kippur, one day; Feast of Tabernacles, four days. Again, not that I’m complaining.) Having exceptional access to new cars and being paid to write stories about them is nice, but what about my access to juicy warm corned beef, zesty rye bread, and strong mustard? That’s when it hits me. I have access to new cars, and I am paid to write stories about them. Why don’t I write a feature story wherein I drive the 525 miles to our nation’s capital on Friday, have my delicious lunch, and — here’s the tricky part — attempt to drive back to Michigan before sunset? You’d want to read about that, right? Amazingly, my superiors go for this. I can even expense the corned beef sandwich!

My excitement infects editorial intern Greg Fink, who has traveled all the way from the University of Florida for the (unpaid) privilege of organizing our office library and putting together Ikea desks for the art staff. Greg is a fellow member of the Tribe of Abraham, but he seems less concerned with the rabbinical supervision of his lunch than with the opportunity to visit friends — mostly female friends — in the District. I’m happy to have a partner on this journey and attempt to explain how pressed for time we’ll be. No use. He continues flipping through his phone’s contact list, reading aloud the names of quarry that might be in town.

Well, I’ll need a fast car. That shouldn’t be too hard to find, but given the theme of this story, I have to keep in mind the sensitivities of a people with a long history of suffering and a renowned ability to hold a grudge. How could I enjoy a Ferrari 458 Italia, for instance, knowing that the Romans sacked Jerusalem in the year 70? To play it safe, I go for a brand whose kosher certification, so to speak, is unimpeachable: Cadillac. My own grandmother is on her third Cadillac. I even opt for her current car, a CTS. The only differences are that the model I procure is a silver wagon, whereas she drives around South Florida in a cherry red sedan. Also, I have a 556-hp, 6.2-liter supercharged V-8 and a stick shift.

Greg and I meet in front of the Automobile Magazine office at 1:08 a.m. on Friday, 19 hours and 57 minutes before sundown. Greg throws an overnight bag into the V wagon’s nicely finished cargo hold. I’ve packed a cooler containing three loaves of braided challah bread, a bottle of wine, and a large pot of pasta with meat sauce — provisions for a traditional Sabbath meal should we become stranded on Friday evening. I wrap my hands around the suedelike steering wheel and shove off into the night. As we merge onto the highway, the Cadillac’s nav system says we will arrive at our destination at 9:23 a.m. That should give Greg time to visit friends and me time to park and get a few hours of sleep before we eat lunch and then head home. I’m further encouraged by the ability of the CTS’s magnetorheological dampers to soak up the stretch of awful highway as we head south out of Michigan.

Crossing into Ohio, though, Greg starts to gripe — kvetch, my grandmother would say — about our chariot.

“I hate the way the shiny black center stack contrasts with the shiny dark wood trim,” he says, further faulting the quality of the trim itself and expressing discomfort with the Recaro seats. I suspect that some of Greg’s nitpicking has less to do with the car than with his growing awareness of the reality of our undertaking. And in Recaro’s defense, it’s really hard to make a performance seat that also works as a cot. Greg has a point, though — the interior doesn’t quite convey the specialness one expects from a $72,635 high-performance vehicle.

Specialness makes a roaring comeback as I downshift to third gear and lay into the throttle on a desolate stretch of highway. The 551 lb-ft of torque hits you ferociously. Only a select few of the cars I’ve driven shoot from 60 to 120 mph with such terrifying ease. None of the others was a station wagon. This may sound fun (it is fun), but it’s also strategy. Before we left, I figured out that we’d need to average roughly 60 mph. That includes travel in the congested D.C. metro area, so I compensate under cover of darkness.

Unfortunately, my calculations do not account for how repeated full-throttle blasts will impact our cruising range. Around 4 a.m., fewer than 200 miles from our starting point, we need gas. I know these pit stops must be executed with military precision, so we discuss our strategy as we approach the rest area: Greg will refresh himself and buy a caffeinated drink while I pump the gas, then he’ll get in the driver’s seat and make the necessary adjustments as I run to buy ice to keep my meat pasta cool. I set the stopwatch on my phone and jump out of the car with what I imagine to be an impressive show of hustle. I top off the eighteen-gallon tank and…where’s Greg? He’s not outside, and when I wander inside the rest area and food court, I don’t see him there, either.

I find him, at last, regarding a bay of vending machines with the vacant, faraway stare of a soldier returning from a night patrol on the Mekong Delta. “Ready to drive?” I ask. He says he is, after having just downed a Starbucks Doubleshot along with a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. “I’ve officially given up being kosher for the day,” he proclaims. After some more delays — my acceleration runs have spilled meat sauce on the carpeted cargo floor — we finally get back on the road. The stopwatch reads 28 minutes and 18 seconds, and the wagon’s onboard computer indicates 13.5 mpg. Not encouraging numbers, those.

Greg gamely drives through the middle of the night as I doze, getting us most of the way through Pennsylvania, albeit with several stops. (“We Fink men have small bladders,” he explains.) I take the helm again around 7 a.m., close to the Maryland border.

With the sun rising above the Appalachian Mountains, I experience a miracle that, if not quite equal to the Biblical story of God creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh, is enjoyable nonetheless. Trying to merge onto I-70, I’m instead dumped off into a driver’s paradise of winding, dipping country two-lanes. I set the dampers to sport mode and heel-and-toe down to second gear. The light, precise steering comes alive over the surface and camber changes, inspiring incredible confidence for such a large vehicle. In a vain attempt to avoid grossly exceeding the speed limit, I accelerate only up the steep hills, charging upward to the whine of the supercharger and digging deep into the Brembo brakes before we hit the crest.

Twenty minutes later, I’m back to earth, trying to figure out precisely where we are as I plunge a toilet at a rural Maryland gas station. The Lord works in mysterious ways, I suppose. We’re way behind schedule, such that it’s pushing 10:30 a.m. by the time we reach the D.C. line and hit the expected traffic. Privately panicking, I note to Greg that he’ll probably need to take the Metro to meet his friends and then meet me right at the food truck. But Greg, who’s spent the last several hours passed out behind his sunglasses, has tempered his ambitions. “I just want to find a clean restroom, eat my sandwich, and get out of here,” he says. Nine hours in a Cadillac have apparently turned him into an old Jewish man.

Sixth & Rye has posted on Twitter that it will be serving lunch near Metro Center between G and H Streets. We’re fortunate enough to find street parking on the same corner. The truck hasn’t arrived yet, but a small crowd of mostly young adults is already gathering in the 104-degree heat. Among them are my incredulous friends, Max and his wife, Ann Rose. Max works as a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, so I make sure to proudly point out the CTS-V’s indicated fuel economy, which is still less than 18 mpg. “I’ll probably leave that detail out when I tell my coworkers about this,” he says.

At about 11:30 a.m., a big white truck with pickles emblazoned all over it pulls to the curb. If you want prompt service in any kosher deli, you have to be a little pushy. I illegally park the Cadillac right behind the truck, and it literally opens doors as the bearded Gavriel Urszuy emerges from the truck and ushers me into its tiny kitchen. As Sixth & Rye’s mashgiach (supervisor), Urszuy ensures that the food preparation and service is consistent with Jewish dietary law under the authority of Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss of Baltimore. The actual cooking is done by Malcolm Mitchell, personal chef to several NBA players (Chef Mendelsohn doesn’t work in the truck).

At last, what I’ve driven nearly 550 miles for: warm, savory corned beef with just the right amount of fat complemented by a powerful yet sophisticated mustard (Mitchell makes it himself).

OK, time to go. I bid adieu to my friends and climb back into the driver’s seat. Feeling refreshed, I chirp the tires as I depart. That, it turns out, is about as much speed as we’re able to build in the next hour as we snake through Georgetown. I nosh on the leftover pickles and nervously blip the throttle as Greg runs out to the sidewalk to take photos. It’s past 1 p.m. by the time we reach the congested Beltway, and my left shin is twitching from depressing the heavy clutch. We have fewer than eight hours to repeat a drive that had required ten when we were better rested and fighting less traffic. Then it starts to rain. Earlier in the trip, we’d maintained a stream of twenty-something male banter: cars we want to buy, memorable episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the attractiveness of actress Mila Kunis (she’s Jewish!). Now, we sit in tense, tired silence, one person trying to rest and the other staring stoically at the road ahead. We’re even too spent to enjoy the V’s performance. Once we’re beyond the city I stay in sixth gear, relying on the ample low-end torque for passing. As in racing, going slower actually makes us faster — we squeeze 275 miles between fuel stops, which we’re now able to complete in about five minutes. As a result, the sun is still hanging lazily over the horizon as rolling hills give way to familiar Midwestern plains. Greg, who at some point has stripped down to a sleeveless undershirt, awakes as we near Toledo, Ohio. “What’s that smell?” he asks groggily.

“We’ve been sitting in this car for eighteen hours, stopping only to eat corned beef. What do you think that smell is?” I reply.

We pull back onto the curb in front of the office — only a few minutes from my home — at 8:42 p.m. We have twenty-three minutes to spare. Silly though it may sound, we both feel we’ve genuinely accomplished something. “Our holy mission is complete,” sighs Greg.

Credit, too, the CTS-V wagon, or “the gentle beast,” as Greg has taken to calling it. Through nearly 1100 miles it proved comfortable, confident, and truly luxurious. In other words, it’s everything a Cadillac should be, even if, as a Corvette-engined station wagon, it’s also quite absurdly everything a Cadillac is not. Being a bag of contradictions myself — what’s a religious Jew doing as a car reviewer, anyway? — I can respect that. I pull into my driveway with just enough time to heat up my pasta. After almost twenty hours of driving, it’s time for my day of rest.

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