Save the Deli

Chaz on Rye…how unkosher should a deli be?

Things have been quiet here in deli world. It’s the summer after all, and most of us are working on our grilling skills, rather than the steam tables. So I figured it’s time to spice things up with some sacriligeous debate right before the high holy days.

High on the Hog

I want to talk about treyf. Shrimp. Milk and Meat. Bacon. Ham. Pork. (the later three of which I’m told come from one magical animal!)

Let me preface this by saying that I am in no way kosher. I eat every manner of chazer that crawls upon the earth and feasts from the bottom. I’ve consumed countless cheeseburgers, ribs, wontons, and variations of unclean and unkosher foods over my lifetime. I wasn’t brouht up kosher and I don’t foresee myself ever becoming kosher, let alone the stricter glatt kosher.

And yet, when I go to a delicatessen and I see ham on the menu, or cheese on the sandwiches I cringe. I’ve been told by owners of delis that they’ll openly scold someone for ordering mayonaise on a corned beef sandwich, while they serve Reubens with pride. I have heard them openly mock those who order milk with a pastrami on rye, yet they’ll boast about the quality of their clam chowder. The worst are those who do this and still call themselves “Kosher Style Delis”, and somehow justify it by saying their meat (which they’d dress with lobster if it sold), comes from a kosher-style provisions company.

Here in Canada, where assimilation is less prevelant than in the United States, and where we are somewhat more traditional, you’ll rarely find cheese or pig on the menu at a Jewish delicatessen. But in the United States the best known delis are those who completely ignore any of the kashrut conventions.

Once upon a time all Jewish delis were kosher. Now the kosher delis are in the minority. A lot of this has to do with cost. As more Jews have abandoned kosher living, those who adhere to it have demanded higher and higher standards of inspection. Glatt kosher, the rigorous standard practiced by the orthodox, is extremely labor intensive. A glatt kosher deli, such as Noah’s Ark in New York and New Jersey, must employ a mashgiach, who is paid to supervise the kitchen at each and every deli, for all the hours the place is open. That’s the main reason why kosher delis are much more expensive than non-kosher one’s. Often, rival supervision agencies will refuse to certify a deli unless they pay their rabbis, cutting them off from a chunk of the community. They’ll take out ads in Jewish papers, declaring that “Vaad of Vancouver states that Goldstein’s Deli is no longer kosher”. Many rightly refer to this as extortion.

However, the journey down treyf lane is a perilous one, which delis frequently ignore. What may start off with a slice of swiss on the corned beef can quickly snowball into cobb salads and grilled pork chops. The more Philly cheesesteaks a deli serves, the less attention it is paying to the chopped liver. Variety may be the spice of life, but the delicatessen demands a concentrated effort.

I am not advocating delicatessens all return to kosher standards. That is an unrealistic, and rather expensive option, which would surely eliminate many fine delis from the map. But a line must be drawn somewhere. Pork has no place in a deli. Shrimp has no place in a deli. Pastrami, corned beef, and brisket are meats of such succulence, that cheese only dulls their attributes.

So I open the question to you: is there a minimum kosher standard Jewish delis should adhere to? Or is it a free for all, with all the chazerei on the table?

7 Responses to “Chaz on Rye…how unkosher should a deli be?”

  1. Dan Estridge Says:

    I love Save The Deli – but I have to differ.
    For me, the question in deli as in all things Noshstalgic is authenticity. Deep comprehension and fidelity to the essence of a thing. It seems to me the question is not what should be permitted – but rather what is the context, the intent, the effect. If you happen upon an avowed deli offering cheese steaks and pastrami subs – you’re not likely to be surprised that they’re not offering chopped liver. You will already have relegated the place to the “sandwich shop” category. You will know it is not a deli no matter what the sign out front says.

    I once wrote a post at my blog about cheese shops that began by considering the supermarket with the big letters saying “Cheese Shop” on the front of the building. Nobody’s fooled.

    On the other hand, if you were to find a place that did a great job on all things deli, not phoning it in – but really doing it. Making pickles that took you back. Creating their own meats – or at least buying the best and treating it properly. etc. – and they also happened to be (let’s say) first generation Alsatian Jewish immigrants who couldn’t resist offering a really first rate choucroute – smoked pork and all? What’s a mother to do? These are great people turning out great food. Should we disqualify them? Invalidate their achievement? I wouldn’t.

  2. extramsg Says:

    I guess I mostly agree with Dan.

    However, for our deli we’ve drawn the line at pork and shellfish. There won’t be any. We will have cheese and dairy, though.

    I more understand the complaint about cheese on deli sandwiches than a strict prohibition on dairy since by-and-large the modern deli is more about having traditional Jewish foods than having kosher foods. So, the two separate types of foods — the appetizers and the delicacies — get combined on one menu so you get places serving whitefish salad, sable, bagels, lox, etc, along with pastrami, corned beef, tongue, knishes, etc.

    And frankly, the reuben, especially the pastrami reuben, is the best sandwich ever invented, imo, and for any non-kosher deli to skip it would just be sad.

    I totally respect a deli that remains kosher or an appetizing store that sticks strictly to fish and dairy. But it’s not very necessary or feasible in modern America.

    But pork and shellfish just seem wholly out of place and unnecessary in a deli. The only call for it is bacon for breakfast items at a deli that serves breakfast. But pastrami is essentially beef bacon. That’s how we use it in our breakfast dishes, as bacon/ham alternative. So, eg, we do a pastrami benedict that’s pretty damned tasty, but does mix meat and dairy.

  3. DrBehavior Says:

    I was just sitting here in the midst of making up names for items on my new taste-testing menu when I checked my e-mail. Somehow, when I read the words, ‘treyf’, Ham, and seafood along with Kosher-style and Deli it seemed as if ‘juxt a position of incongruous elements’ had streaked across my page and, frankly, upset my stomach.
    I’m just on the verge of launching my own, very small, specialty catering business here in Northern California. The whole premise of my undertaking is based on the concept of the ‘old fashion, kosher-style’ Deli. I couldn’t even bring myself to write the names of products on my forthcoming menu that strayed very far from what the good old mashgiach would have approved of, at least in spirit.

  4. Jason Perlow Says:

    I am both torn by tradition and by the practicalities of running restaurants in this day and age, and the tastes of modern Jewish Americans. I think its ok for a Delicatessen to offer items that violate halachical or kashrs principles on the menu provided that the quality levels are being up. So, reubens, cheesesteaks, no problem, as long as they are sterling examples. Katz’s certainly does a very good job with this as does the Carnegie. Now, actual forbidden Trayf items? Ham? Bacon? Shrimp? That’s probably going a bit too far. However not every town is New York City — in a place like New Orleans, Atlanta or Florida, it might totally be cool do do something like that with the community down there. Case in point, places like TooJay’s in Florida, which are perfectly comfortable offering Bacon and Cheese omelettes and Bacon Cheese Burgers alongside Matzo Ball Soup and Pastramis on Rye. Although to their credit, they don’t offer Shrimp, Ham or Shellfish. I guess Bacon is one of those treyf items that modern Jews will let slide, but “Ham” is just too close to the vest gentile to be permitted on a deli menu. We are a wacky culture.

    The true Kosher deli, however, should be protected because I think there should always be one.

  5. extramsg Says:

    Jason, have you checked out the NY deli menus, though? I have quite a collection and bacon and ham are prevalent. Perhaps not in Queens or Brooklyn, but certainly in Manhattan.

    Carnegie has ham and bacon for breakfast items. They have BLTs, club sandwiches, and ham sandwiches. Stage is the same. Sarge’s is the same. Katz’s seems to be the exception, not the rule, when it comes to the bigger full-service delis (as opposed to smaller places like Pastrami Queen).

  6. julia s Says:

    I must say I agree with David on this one. Being Canadian, however, the Reuben has never become part of our deli culture, and therefore our deli does not mix up the milk and the meat. That being said, I often go to the deli for cheese bagelach, blintzes, etc., while others are busy eating smoked meat sandwiches!

  7. ├želik raf Says:

    Thanks keep up the good work.

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