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Heart and soul? Try tongue and liver
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Heart and soul? Try tongue and liver

The Jewish deli redux

Author David Sax samples the whitefish at Eppes Essen in Livingston.
Author David Sax samples the whitefish at Eppes Essen in Livingston.

One would expect David Sax to be a lot bigger. After all, someone who has been to more than 170 Jewish delicatessens around the world surely would have had ample opportunity to put some meat on his bones, so to speak.

But the author of Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen (Houghton Mifflin) is, in fact, rather small for someone who’s an aficionado of stacked-high sandwiches, knishes, and related fare.

Sax spanned the world in researching the book, which includes delis from New York to Krakow to Paris, with special attention to his native Toronto and Montreal, the home of the “smoked meat” sandwich. Not quite pastrami, not quite corned beef, the delicacy doesn’t quite translate to American; you can’t get it in the States. His anecdotes brought back memories of Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, an 81-year-old landmark (in the land of my people) known for its cramped tables, noisy atmosphere, and great sandwiches.

Save the Deli is bound to be a valued source for noshers (the appendix includes the names, addresses, phone numbers, and websites of all those delis). It captures the joys, woes, and flavors of a cuisine that has been embraced by past generations of fressers and is chiefly shunned by those of today — but is, Sax hopes, making a comeback.

Sax scouted out the display cases at Eppes Essen in Livingston while awaiting my arrival. “The noodle kugel looks absolutely incredible,” he offered. “And the whitefish looks good, too.”

Seated at a window table, we leisurely perused the extensive menu. Over the din of the lunchtime crowd, Sax explained how he evaluates a deli.

“I’ll always taste the pastrami and corned beef,” he said. “I’ll usually ask for a small plate with a couple of pieces of this and a couple of pieces of that. That’s really the baseline.” Matza ball soup is also a good indicator of a quality establishment, he said.

He’s suspicious of deli owners who claim they do everything well. “Everyone is going to have one thing that they do better than anyone else. The reality is one place might do an amazing chopped liver, one place might do pastrami…. They’re all variations of these recipes that someone’s bubbe handed down.”

But Sax is not a food critic; he’s more interested in the people who run the stores and the customers. “To me it’s more where this place is from, who opened up the store? When? Was it in another location? If it moved, why did it move? You get a story of that deli, of its place in the community and the greater Jewish community of the country, and that is what ties the story together.”

For occasional use only?

Kosher delis fell out of favor as Jews, in an effort to assimilate, eschewed the foods and cooking styles of their forebears. The “great cholesterol panic” of the 1980s exacerbated the situation, but Sax denies that deli food is the culinary equivalent of cyanide.

“If you wake up every day and live on a diet of pastrami sandwiches and don’t exercise, yeah, it’s not going to be good for you,” he conceded. But, he said, pointing to the nearby tables, “look around. There are people in their 80s and 90s, and they’re still eating this stuff. And there are a lot of young people who eat extremely healthy but get sick from other things.”

“For a couple of months while I was working on the book,” he said, “I ate deli every single day, but I would control my portions. I had to accept the fact, against all my Jewish training, that I could leave food on the plate.”

But what about those giant portions so famous in these eateries?

“It’s interesting. In Montreal, the average size of a deli sandwich is five ounces. In Toronto it’s about seven; in Chicago, 10; and in New York, it’s about 12 ounces. There’s the expectation that there has to be this amount of abundance that probably comes from the origin of this food, Eastern Europe, where the experience was nothing but starvation. They have to have a huge sandwich.”

He said perhaps if delis offered customers smaller sandwiches, “it would be less intimidating and they’d probably come in more often. If I eat a 12-ounce sandwich today, I’m not going to eat another one for the next three days.”

You don’t have to be Jewish

Years ago an ad campaign by Levy’s Rye Bread featured members of several ethnic groups extolling the virtues of their product. Sax says that concept carries over to delis in general.

“There’s a lot of people that love it and lot of delis that are successful and don’t cater to a Jewish clientele. They’re in neighborhoods or areas that are predominantly not Jewish. That’s not a bad thing. In many ways it’s a good thing,” Sax said. “If these businesses just relied on Jews, it would be a lot tougher. They’re relying on one type of clientele which is — from the words of deli owners to my mouth — often the most demanding clients, definitely more difficult. They want the piece of whitefish between the third and forth vertebrae.”

As an example, he mentioned Hobby’s a Newark Jewish deli that attracts an eclectic group of patrons. “Food knows no boundaries.”

Strictly kosher delis are an expensive proposition all around. Owners can cut their expenses by cutting back on how they prepare certain foods or by raising the prices. Either way, it’s a vicious cycle.

“Fifteen dollars for a sandwich or $7 for a bowl of matza ball soup, for a person who keeps Glatt kosher [isn’t too bad]. But if you’re just someone coming in for lunch from an office, it’s quite expensive.”

Flavor’s in the fat

Sax ordered a bagel with whitefish spread, tomato, and lettuce and a cream soda. In deference to the occasion, I ordered a pastrami sandwich, something I had not consumed in perhaps 20 years. I asked about the “etiquette” of asking for lean meat.

“To order it lean is just going to decrease the pleasure,” he advised. “The fat is where the flavor is. Your grandmother knew it; your parents knew it. But because of these diets, we came to the realization that, oh my God, if I eat anything but a boneless, skinless breast of chicken, I’m going to die. Bull****. Saturated fats are a part of a healthy diet — in moderation.”

Sax is certainly no Morgan Spurlock, the writer/director behind Supersize Me, a documentary in which he ate nothing but fast food for a month to monitor the changes in his mental and physical health, with scary results.

Sax said momentum remains a substantial threat to the deli industry, but he believes things are improving. “People of my generation are more interested in their roots,” said the 30-year-old. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more you eat deli, the more you want to eat deli. There are people who are going to read your article, who, like you, say, ‘I don’t know the last time I had a pastrami sandwich,’ then go out and buy a pastrami sandwich.

“I hope the book will get enough people excited about deli that they’ll think about eating it more.”

When the food arrived, Sax tasted the pastrami. Like an oenologist who can identify vintages by region, soil, and climate, he identified it as a Hebrew National product. “It’s steamed well. It’s cut well. It has that right amount of fat to it.” He judged it to be about nine ounces, “a good size, not too large.” I said it seemed less fatty than sandwiches I remembered from my youth. He proceeded to describe in detail the processes that go into giving the meats their unique consistencies and flavors. It’s not for the squeamish, especially at mealtime.

Writing Save the Deli was “a blast,” said Sax. “The people I met were just unfailingly generous and kind and passionate. You’re dealing the majority of the time with family-owned restaurants whose life’s blood has been put into this….” The owners, he said, “share their stories, their love for food, and their love for their culture.”

One of the restaurants listed was Adelman’s, the eatery of choice from my college days living in Brooklyn. I imagine readers will get similar feelings of nostalgia when they see their local deli in the book.

Sax receives queries on his website (www.savethedeli.com) from prospective entrepreneurs seeking his advice about opening a place of their own. “The first question I ask them is, ‘Are you doing this to make money or are you doing this because you love the food?’” If it’s to make dough, he says, “generally your chances of success are much lower.”

We asked for noodle kugel for dessert. They were out. Just as well.

“People ask if I ever get sick of this,” Sax said. “Not at all. This is the comfort food that I grew up with.”

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