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

  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
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.


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.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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