Sunday, October 4, 2015

Can you find a good Jewish Deli anymore?

When I was a little kid living in the Worcester, Massachusetts area a treasured outing with my grandmother was a trip to Weintraub’s Jewish Deli on Water Street.  When we moved away, any return trip was incomplete until we had made a pilgrimage for pastrami and corned beef.  Sometime in the 80s the place was sold and something seemed to change.  The staff that knew my grandmother by name retired.  Quality seemed to suffer some.  I traveled in search of other delis.  Posh Nosh and Pumpernickles in St. Louis, The Gaiety, Katz’ and Carnegie in NYC, Manny’s in Chicago all came close to those childhood memories.  But somehow my childhood memories of Weintraub’s was of sandwiches that had just the right amount of meat, not mountains bigger than my mouth, spicy brown mustard, a commitment to kosher rules, Dr. Brown’s sodas, and killer half sour pickles.  Don’t get me wrong, the NYC delis held up to their legendary status and Manny’s is amazing, but none of them were Weintraub’s to me.
That feeling of comfort and tradition is at the heart of the deli, as described in David Sax’s book, Save the Deli.  Any lover of community and food, Jewish culture, or traditional mom-and-pop dining will devour this book.  Sax summarizes the history of the Jewish community in New York City and its Jewish delis and then sets out on a six week journey across North America examining the state of the deli today.   Along the way he traces numerous themes in recent American history, particularly suburbanization, gentrification, the costs of quality ingredients, and the challenges posed by lowest-common-denominator, mass market chain restaurants.  He pulls no punches, essentially telling us that Florida and the Bay Area have lost all their Jewish deli authenticity, charm and joy, while Chicago still has passion, but hasn’t yet found the successful formula to save the deli, and that Los Angeles is the now de facto American capital of deli.  He wraps up his North American tour glowing about the dining in Montreal and bringing us back to NYC with the re-opening of the 2nd Street Deli.  Finally, Sax travels to Europe where Jewish cuisine takes on an entirely different set of influences, yielding fascinating results.  

I know many people who have no clue what I am looking for when I say I want a good Jewish deli.  Perhaps they can point me to an Italian or German deli, but have never set foot in a Jewish one.  Maybe their experience with corned beef or pastrami is little beyond their local grocery store.  These great delis have been dying for 40 years, but there are a few holding on and even a few opening (you will have to read the book).  Those who grew up with them and love them must promote them.  David Sax’s book, web page and Facebook page are just what we need.  Check them out… and    

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