Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  2009

 
Sound the alarm! The corner delicatessen is in danger! Help! In Save the Deli, David Sax has written an entertaining call to arms. This gustatory travelogue is part polemic, part portrayal of cardiacstressing food preparation, part exercise in nostalgia, and part sociological treatise, but it is all a loving celebration of uniquely Jewish food. 

Sax fresses his way around the world while offering an historical perspective. He points out how Jewish food reflects the diaspora, with the exception of “bagels, matzo and gefilte fish.” Delicatessen, for example, is the culinary offspringof the expulsion of Ashkenazi Jews from virtually every European country wedded to dietary restrictions imposed by Biblical law. And as assimilationists, Jews have been ever-willing to adapt to their new environment; thus, Sax observes that despite the laws of kashrut, what predominates in the New York market today are “Jewish-owned, Jewish-operated, Jewishpatronized, non-kosher delicatessens.” 

The author’s ability to turn a phrase is amusing, as when he describes the talent of Sam Agelopoulos of the Centre Street Deli in Toronto, “whose nimble hands can carve a brisket as though he were Rodin chipping at marble,” or when he describes an overweight couple he observed in Greenberg’s Deli in a Las Vegas hotel, who “sat in matching NASCAR Tshirts, their ample flesh stuffed like kishke into advertisement-laden casing.” His knack and evident affection for his subject contributes to the reader’s enjoyment and understanding.  Save the Deli taught me more than I ever thought I wanted to know about what goes on behind the deli counter, but his observation about the richness of Wagyu pastrami, which Sax found in San Francisco (“a full sandwich can stop the heart of a shark”), adds to the book’s tam. Oy! I’m ready for a good nap...and a Tums. Glossary, listing of delis, photographs.


Interview

by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

Over the phone David Sax tells me it is almost a relief that I suggest a Lower East Side coffee bar to kibbitz. (Apparently most of his previous profilers think a deli meet is a novel idea.) David is already there when I arrive, a suspiciously belly-less young Canadian in his early 30’s.

What authority could he have to write about the territory of aging hefty uncles? 

Nonetheless this svelte hipster boychik from Toronto has traveled the globe in order to understand the warp and the weft of this endangered food niche. Los Angeles, Cleveland, Chicago. He made it to other Jewish pockets of America where, when ordering white bread on your pastrami, no one clobbers you with a baseball bat. He even hopped across the pond to see The Beefeaters we rarely hear about in London, the Salt Beef eating kind, not the warders of her Majesty’s royal palace. And into Galiciana Poland to see what Jewish cooking was like in the new millennium. (Not so good.) 

I tried to introduce myself at his book launch in Ben’s Kosher Deli in the Diamond District, but tell him that I have never witnessed such joyous pandemonium at a book event. Needless to say, the Save the Deli launch was loud and fun and fully embraced its Jewishness. Frankly, it felt more like a bar mitzvah than a book launch; it was impossible to talk to anyone over the gabble of hundreds of happy partygoers, which included Catskill legend Freddie Roman, and The Jewish Elvis, Jelvis. David modestly shrugs off the lines out the door, “Complimentary pastrami and cream soda will do it.” 

“Reviews have been phenomenal,” I remind him, and he grins. 

David’s humor runs dark in person and on the page, as evident in his book’s details, like his deep revulsion at watching his pastrami sandwich microwaved by a deli claiming to be authentic, and a customer choking on a big chunk of phenomenal gefilte fish who gets the Heimlich and then eats the projectile again because i t was so good. He can be poignant too; I delighted in his often heartbreaking portraits of diehard deli men and their fantasias of making it big in Las Vegas. And then he shows the loathsomeness of the corporate “New York style” delis that have actually opened in the Casinos, even branches of famous American delis that muck up the failproof recipes. Mel Brooks also makes a Hollywood cameo in the book. 

What’s not to love here? 

Is he going to follow up with more foodie non-fiction, currently a hot slice of the book market? Or stick to Jewish topics? Or do a Carnegie combo of foodie and Jewish? 

“I know I don’t want to get typecast in deli. I’ve recently been posting radio stories on NPR.” Like what? He smiles, “Last one is called Man Enough to Love Eat Pray Love.” I laugh hard, mostly because my husband despised that book, which I got a big girlie kick out of. “I majored in economics and history and wrote serious journalism for several magazines, did journalism stints in South America, Argentina, and Brazil. A million subjects fascinate me. Actually, I’ve had this idea for a long time; while working on a term paper an idea fixed in my head to write this book.” Probably the only thing that doesn’t interest him is writing fiction. As our second coffee comes, I wish him a creative nonfiction career Rich Cohen or Mark Kurlansky would be proud of. 

David was born in 1976 in Toronto, to parents who had left the Montreal Jewish community during the first threats of Québecois secession. Jewish on both sides, his mother’s family emigrated to Canada in the early 1800’s, and his father, like many in the Montreal community, was the child of Romanian immigrants. I ask more about old school Canadian deli, and the Toronto food scene. Montreal is famous for its smoked meat, sort of a pastrami-meetscorned beef. “An artisanal deli restaurant called Mile End has opened up in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, where New Yorkers will get a taste of what Jewish Canadians crave, and even non-Jewish Canadians. And Caplansky’s in Toronto is worth a visit. A new artisanal deli getting it right too.” 

But are artisanal delis in it for the long haul, or still in love with the newness? He shared my concern. 

He spoke forebodingly of the future for some of the old timers hanging on that he profiled, the dedicated ones for whom money, apparently, is incidental, but not to their heirs. But he concedes this artisanal deli movement, which includes Michael Anthony making his own pastrami at Gramercy Tavern, is a bright spot in the industry. “Can you imagine the dedication that goes into curing your own meat from scratch?” 

One of David’s most startling discoveries, after he carefully likens New York to the Jerusalem of Deli, is that the best city for deli is Los Angeles. Saying in print that Los Angeles has the best pastrami sandwich? Isn’t that an invitation to a war? “But it’s the truth,” he says, “they have many great delis there, supported by the Hollywood culture. And you have to taste the pastrami at Langer’s. A different stratosphere.” 

I press him as our hour ends, is there really a doomsday clock for my father’s favorite food? Can he vouchsafe pastrami’s existence for my young daughter’s generation when health and bottom- line concerns trump narrowminded pursuit of deli perfection? 

“As long as there are true fanatics I have hope.” Sounding more like my grandmother by the minute, I wish him nachas on his upcoming wedding, and think, maybe, just maybe I should swing by Katz’s for some takeout, to hell with the diet. 

To read more about David Sax, please visit www.savethedeli.com.



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