Man On A Mission To Save The Jewish Delis

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz 

The Real Thing – A Deli Corned Beef Sandwich

Knowing my interest in Jewish food, Michael Berger, sent me the following article which appeared on August 28, 2009 and was written by Sue Fishkoff who writes about Jewish identity for JTA and is the author of the 2003 book "The Rebbe's Army."  The article is about the new book “Save the Deli” by David Sax (Christopher Farber, 2009).  According to the story below, Mr. Sax ate at more than 150 Jewish delis to research his new book.  That is a heart-stopping amount of Jewish cholesterol isn’t it?

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Chicago and Cleveland have the best corned beef. Detroit is tops for rye bread. The best smoked meat is in Montreal, and for pastrami, you can’t touch New York and L.A.

When it comes to Jewish delicatessen, 30-year-old David Sax is the go-to guy. A longtime deli aficionado, the annoyingly trim Sax spent three years eating his way through more than 150 Jewish delis to research. “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” a wistful, riotously funny paean to this quintessential slice of American Jewish history.
The book, which will be published in October by Houghton Miflin Harcourt, is a delicious romp through a fast-disappearing world. In 1931, Sax reports, there were 2,000 delis in New York City, three-quarters of them kosher. Today, Sax says, his research turns up 25 Jewish delis in the city, two-thirds of which are kosher. A similar pattern has followed across North America, with city after city sounding the death knell for its last traditional deli. Sax guesses there are
just a few hundred left worldwide, most of them in the United States.
“The Jewish deli is dying,” Sax told JTA. “Each time I hear a deli closes, something inside me dies.”
German immigrants brought the deli to New York in the 1820s, Sax reports. By the 1870s and ‘80s, German Jews had made their own, kosher modifications to the traditional treif recipes: schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, instead of lard; ptcha, or jellied calves’ feet, instead of
pig trotters. The origins of the first pastrami sandwich is shrouded in mystery, although writer Patricia Volk told Sax her great-grandfather was the first to slap pastrami between two slices of rye bread at his kosher butcher shop in New York in the late 1880s.

Sax chronicles the rise and decline of the “kosher-style” deli, an American innovation that originally differed from its kosher counterpart mainly in hours of operation (they did not close on the Sabbath) and lack of rabbinical supervision. Reaching its heyday in the 1950s and
‘60s, the kosher-style deli eventually succumbed to economic pressure and popular tastes and began putting cheese on turkey sandwiches, offering milk with coffee and using non-kosher meats. From there, it was an easy hop to serving bacon with French toast. Today few such delis use the term “kosher style,” preferring to call themselves Jewish or New York delis.

Most of this book is about food, the gloriously fatty, heart-stopping Ashkenazi cuisine that is the signature of the Jewish deli: braised brisket in wine sauce; pickled tongue; cabbage rolls in
sweet-and-sour tomato; matjes herring; and, of course, the litany of “k’s,” the knishes, kreplach, kugel and kvetching.

He saves his highest praise for the deli meats: corned beef pickled and boiled in vats of brine; pastrami, lovingly rubbed with secret spice mixtures, then smoked and steamed to perfection. The way to suss out a good deli, he says, is to order the matzah ball soup and whatever deli
meat the city specializes in, be it corned beef, tongue, pastrami or smoked beef, a softer, gentler Canadian variant.

Although delicatessen originated in Europe, American Jews put their own stamp on it. Pastramia, for example, was in its native Romania a method of preparing any meat or poultry, and was in fact originally used most often for duck or goose. In the United States, Romanian Jews applied the same technique to beef, which began pouring in from the great Western plains and was much cheaper than game poultry.

“The Jewish deli is rooted in the flavors of the Old World,” Sax says. “Some things are the same, like the chopped liver, the chicken soup. Others are amalgamations, like the sandwich, an American thing that the Jewish delis appropriated.”

A big part of Sax’s mission is to encourage young Jews to take over delis at risk of closing or open new ones, a goal that might seem counterintuitive in today’s economic climate. But he insists the market for deli food is there, as a new generation looks back nostalgically to
a cuisine that represents an earlier, simpler, more comforting era. “People aren’t really looking for innovation in deli,” he insists. “The best things I see in the new delis are a return to tradition.” His favorite new Jewish delis are taking advantage of the organic, do-it-yourself movement that is influencing the country’s restaurant scene. “It’s ‘innovative’ today to pickle your own meat or make your own kishke.”

In his effort to give props to these newcomers, Sax glosses over the sad but very real possibility that the Jewish deli may not survive outside a few key cities. New York’s deli scene has imploded, he says, and new delis in Portland, Ore. and Boulder, Colo., may be just flashes in the matzah brie pan.

His hopes for the San Francisco Bay Area seem particularly Pollyannaish. Two of the four Jewish delis he describes in his book have closed since he visited them, and of the remaining two, only Saul’s Deli in Berkeley rates as a real destination; David’s on Geary St., near San Francisco’s Union Square, is a dilapidated version of its former self.

Two delis to serve a region with more than 350,000 Jews? It’s a shanda.

This book brought back many memories of my childhood when many Jewish families were involved in the deli business either with owning, working in or providing supplies for these businesses.  In some cases, families owned more than one deli and some had branches in New York and other places such as South Florida.

Talk about rabbinical dynasties having yichus, these were the deli dynasties.  One of these which was a hallmark in South Florida was Wolfie’s which also spawned the Rascal House and was originally owned by Wolfie Cohen and later bought by the David Nevel family.  Others were Pumpernick’s, owned by Charlie Bookbinder, and Junior’s, owned by Arthur Horowitz, and the like.

After he returned from World War II, my father worked in Wolfie’s #1 on Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, before moving onto his own restaurants.  It was a real experience going there as we were treated like visiting royalty with the best table, waitress, quick service and great food.  I knew all of the personnel as they were fixtures of the place and usually stayed there for years. 

Wolfie’s Restaurant & Sandwich Shop
Miami Beach, FL

Speaking of which, very often, one of the outstanding features of the delis, besides their food, was their sometimes loud and abrasive waitresses.  These women or men, in some cases, were the real draw of some of the deli establishments.  Abusing the customer became a refined art in itself and the customers loved it!  Customers were known to line up for certain serving staff and they came back time after time.

There were also the many people who worked behind the scenes in the delis, cooking and slicing and otherwise preparing the food.  Not all were Jewish, by any means, as can be attested to by the well-known Jewish-style black cook at the Rascal House known as Roosevelt.

So, it was sad for me to read in Sax’s book that the deli is heading for oblivion.  Perhaps those who still love the yiddishe tam of the delis will visit them again and preserve what was once a unique way of life.

1 comment:

  1. Makes my mouth water just reading this post. I live in an area that does not have any Jewish delis at all, and I miss this food very much.
    Unfortunately, not in a position to open one myself.


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