Save the Deli

Save the Deli savethedeli

by David Sax. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2009.

This fall I started teaching a class on Jewish cooking for the JCC high school program. My idea for the class was that in addition to learning some fun Jewish recipes, the students and I would explore what it is that makes any one food “Jewish.” Is a food Jewish because it is mentioned in Torah or because it has specific religious significance? Is a food Jewish because it was always traditionally prepared by Jews? Where do theology, geography, and culture intersect when it comes to “Jewish food?” In addition, I wanted to discuss with them the importance of cultural memory, food, and Judaism: so many of us have strong associations with certain foods and holidays, and, perhaps even more importantly, with people (perhaps the person who lovingly made a particular dish). I think these memories and associations are fascinating and should be held sacred. As Reform rabbi and prominent theologian Eugene Borowitz once wrote, “God lurks in the chopped liver.” Meaning, I think, that behind these cultural and familial associations are very powerful ideas about God, love, family, and more.

I think David Sax’s book, Save the Deli, supports this idea. Sax celebrates the history, stories, culture, and definitely the families of delis that he was alarmed to see disappearing across America. Though his book was heavily reviewed when it came out a few years ago, I just got around to reading it, in large part thinking it would be useful for this class. It’s a fun book, and while I’m really not a big meat eater, I definitely finished the book needing some serious rye bread, toasted, perhaps double-baked as I learned they do in the Detroit delis.

Sax’s opening demonstrates why it’s so difficult (and pointless anyway) to try to separate the threads of culture, religion, and history when discussing Jewish food. He begins with a history of the deli. His  explanation for why most delis now are kosher-style, instead of glatt or even “regular” kosher, is simple and one with which I concur after two semesters of American Jewish history in school: in European shtetls there would be one shochet (kosher butcher) for each town, but in New York, with kosher authorities competing for supervision, “kosher-style delis were opened by those who wanted no part of the complicated, expensive, and often hypocritical world of kosher certification.” Sax celebrates the melting pot of New York Jewish immigrant cuisine: “Those living in Polish areas favored sweeter dishes. Those in Hungary relied heavily on paprika. The Romanian Jews were fiends for spice and smoke. All the Ashkenazi communities had a proclivity for garlic and onions…it was a diet forged out of necessity, characterized by poverty, and dictated by the word of God…” Thoughout the book, Sax describes in detail the unique business aspects of the deli, showing how the deli went from “a European undertaking created and molded by immigrants” to “increasingly American in character.”  Sax makes sure to note that delis are indeed a uniquely American thing, though he does visit a few delis in Europe and makes poignant observations about what those institutions reveal in terms of the Jewish populations there. But “one place that’s never taken to Jewish delicatessan is Israel, even though it boasts more Ashkenazi Jews that anywhere else. You could not find a pastrami sandwich in Jerusalem if you had the Mossad looking for you…the Israeli culinary landscape is dominated by food of the Arabs.” I concur. I’d like to write more about the Ottolenghi book, Jerusalem, soon…

Yet despite these hearty beginnings, the main theme of the book is the demise of the deli across America due to a number of factors: the rise of corporate restaurant chains, increasing rent, loss of cultural ties. (He makes sure to note that health concerns aren’t and shouldn’t really be a reason with a brief nutritional breakdown at the end).  The most dismal deli scene of all seems to be in Detroit, which is a dismal scene in general these days, I guess. At Lou’s, the oldest Jewish deli in Detroit, he finds that “The counter, kitchen, and cash now sat squarely behind a wall of bulletproof Plexiglas, stretching all the way to the ceiling. The customer placed an order through a microphone, then slid money under the glass. Food was served from a bulletproof lazy Susan in the glass…” Sax notices that despite the “décor,” the place seems to be doing ok, mainly thanks to the observation from a local business consultant that “more corned beef is consumed by African Americans in Detroit for Jews for sure. Sax finds this phenomenon in the deli he visits in Kansas City, as well, where the owner tells him: “ ‘Blacks don’t have problems with eating cholesterol…if you’ve grown up eating barbecue, pastrami is a drop in the bucket.’” In celebration of this, the Kansas City deli offers a hickory-smoked brisket, which Sax deems fantastic.

Speaking of cholesterol and health concerns, Sax stops in a deli in Boulder and surprised (as I would be) to find one of the best delis in the country there. It’s amazing because they are so local organic, as one would expect in Boulder – but they definitely aren’t growing any kale. “Here I was,” Sax writes,” in the mountains of Colorado, at a brand spanking new deli, and a tall blond fly fisherman was offering me a taste of the substance at the very core of Yiddish cooking” which is homemade schmaltz.

Besides Boulder, the other place that of course comes to mind in terms of ultra-foodie local organic is San Francisco. Save the Deli was published in 2009, and it seems that the deli revolution – such as Deli Board and Wise Sons, to name a few – hadn’t really gotten going yet. But he finds that further down the coast, Los Angeles has the best deli scene and what he thinks is the brightest deli future. Delis in Los Angeles are thriving. As Sax amusingly tells it, “Delis can provide an essential dose of reality for budding stars and fragile egos… ‘This,’ [actor Jonas] Chernick said, holding up the fat chopped liver sandwich in his hands, ‘is the perfect antidote to Scientology.’”

Unfortunately for my family and me, Sax is perhaps most depressed about the deli scene in Florida. Miami Beach is no longer the grand refuge of retirees that it once was, as since the 1980’s, “drug violence invaded Miami and…most of the retirees living in Miami Beach survived on fixed incomes, and their frugal lifestyle negatively affected economic growth in the area, which felt like a cross between Rio’s mean streets and a shtetl by the sea.” He does note that Florida his home to the only “successful” deli chain in the country, which is Toojay’s. I’ve never been to Toojay’s. That will probably change soon.

Food writing is, I’m sure, a tricky thing. There are so many cliché ways to describe food and eating, and it’s probably tough to be enthusiastic without being, well, schmaltzy. I think Sax does it right by using a lot of good humor as his main flavoring. For example, the smoked meat experience at Montreal’s deli: “…a bouquet of whole peppercorns and coriander seeds and faint hints of brown sugar rise up from the meat…this is a taste of smoked meat in its purest, finest, and most famous form: a touch spicy, a bit salty, always fatty, and foremost tender. The sandwich disappears in eight bites, a glorious, debauched, greasy invocation of pure animal savagery. Heaven.”

But with his “glossary” of Jewish food at the end of the book he dives headfirst into the borscht belt. Chopped liver is “fried chicken livers, chopped with eggs and fried onions. Loved by babies, despised by kids, rediscovered during pregnancy.” Schmaltz is “chicken fat rendered during the making of soup, cooled and used for cooking, flavoring, or as an aphrodisiac to attract Jewish men.” Latkes are “served with applesauce and all too often a hockey stick.” Cholent is “slowly braised stew…traditionally eaten on the Sabbath, it requires prayer to digest.”

There’s a lot in this book about beef: pastrami, corned beef, tongue, “baby brisket,” smoked beef, etc. Sax talks a lot about the “art” of cutting, the horror of machine sliced meat, etc. Not really my thing, and I’m not going to make corned beef at home (though I guess one certainly could!) so I went for the dessert counter instead. While I didn’t grow up with this as part of my Jewish food repertoire, apparently the “black and white” cookie is a staple of deli desserts:

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Go Gators! Beat Tennessee! I can’t help it – they came out like that, magically.

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