Oh yes my friends, you all know what that is. Rumors are flying left and right about when the new 2nd Ave Deli will open. No definitive word is out yet, though I will let you know that Save the Deli is in close contact with the Lebewohls, and you’ll be the first to know when I do.
Feel it…taste it…the return is coming!
‘Allo ‘allo then! What ‘ave we ‘ere? A lovely bit of salt beef guvnah? Smashing.
Yes, my Britishisms are awful when written down, but you should hear my faux Cockney accent these days. Straight out of Dickens, or some Michael Caine flick.
That’s right my lovelies, I’ve finally returned from London, the seat of HRH’s empire, where salt beef rules the waves, hand carved in several select locations around town.
First, you should all know what salt beef is. Salt beef is corned beef. The same thing…different name. In fact, the corn in corned beef refers to “corns” or kernels of salt, and the only corn that comes near salt beef in the United States, it that which is force fed to the cattle in feedlots. British salt beef, by comparison, comes from grass fed cattle, who roam the lush pastures of the British Isles munching away happily.
Now, while the UK has a dubious reputation as a place to eat…the land of grey, lifeless, spiceless dishes…I’m happy to report that the delicatessen is excellent. The salt beef is almost always barrel cured, sometimes for as long as three weeks, and has a mild, brackish flavor that tastes of the sea. The tongue, sliced from the Ox, is the best I have had anywhere, thick, hand carved luxurious rounds of fatty meat that is absolutely decadent and incredible. There’s fantastic chopped liver (served with chopped egg and onion), killer matzo ball and kreplach soups, and squares of splendid lokshen pudding. The mustard is all hot, as in fiery Dijon type spice, and when you slather it on as I do, you’re in for a wasabi style sinus clearing.
Now, I could go on about the deli men I met, or the differences in the evolution of the deli in London. I could rip into the rye bread, which is beyond terrible, and lacks any rye qualities whatsoever, but I won’t. It’s Sunday, I’ve been working for the whole afternoon, and I have a movie to catch. So I’ll just present this little film below and leave you all to hit play. Check out the photos of the foods, see the addresses below, and buy a cheap ticket over the pond to visit Ole Blighty. There’s some quality deli waiting for you.
(International calls are +44)
Britain’s First and Best Beigel Shop
155 Brick Lane, Spitalfields
London, E1 6SB
020 7729 0826
Brick Lane Beigel Bake
159 Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets
London, E1 6SB
020 7729 0616
*Both of these are 24 hr places in the old Jewish section of town, now a mix between Bangledeshi gangland and hipster heaven. Not kosher, or even remotely kosher style, but you can get a salt beef sandwich or on a beigel for cheaper than a pint…after a few pints. So go on, get mashed up like Amy Winehouse and soak it up with some meat.
B & K Salt Beef Bar Map
11 Hanson House Whitchurch Lane
London, HA8 6NL
020 8952 8204
*John Georgiou is the meanest, leanest deli man in London. He’s the son of a great deli man, and now raises younger deli men. He carves like a surgeon, and his salt beef is absolutely the most gorgeous stuff you can pay for.
130 Golders Green Road
London NW11 8HB
020 8455 1338
New! 313 Hale Lane,
Edgware, Middx HA8 7AX
020 8958 2229
*For years, Bloom’s was the top kosher deli in the old East End. The original closed a decade back, but the second location, in the heavily Jewish Golder’s Green, is still kicking and tastes even better after a recent renovation.
The Brass Rail Salt Beef Bar
400 Oxford Street
London, W1A 1AB, UK
+44 800 123400
*The Brass Rail is an institution, located in the food hall of Selfridge’s, the second ritziest department store in London. You can have a lovely salt beef or tongue, then go off and buy a $500 truffle or a $12,000 Gucci bag. Only for discerning tastes.
79 Baker Street, W1U 6RG
020 7486 0035
*Once upon a time, Reuben’s was part of the Reuben’s chain from Montreal and Toronto, but it has been kosher, and wonderfully run by the Hassan family for many years now. The son, Tam Hassan is a fantastic chef, and has elevated kosher deli to new heights. The chicken soup is so yellow and schmaltzy, you could be eating butter.
29-31 St Johns Wood High Street
Tel: 020 7722 1869
Plus several other locations
*Harry Morgan’s, or “Harry’s”, is the deli where high end London and working Jewish London meet. On a given Saturday, when the lunch line can erupt into fistfights, you could find old pensioners sitting next to George Michael or Roman Abramovich. Everything is top quality and made fresh, including stellar tongue, fantastic chicken soup, and even p’tcha, the calf’s food jelly I’ve only seen in France. Plus, you can buy the cool dishes with the words of Jewish food written on them.
Also, those wishing to see Jewish London’s past should book a tour with Clive Bettington, of the Jewish East End Celebration Society.
Check them out at www.jeecs.org.uk
Just flew back from London last night, and it’s good to be back at the home desk, pounding away at the keys once again. I’ll post about salt beef and London shortly, but for now, a tidbit that one of you loyal followers sent me while I was away.
In a story last week, the Lower Manhattan newspaper The Villager published the story “Katz’s Delicatessan says sale rumors are baloney”, by reporter Lincoln Anderson. Given what we’ve heard, and what I’ve printed, about the potential demise of the oldest American delicatessen, this is a breath of good news.
Although news articles, bloggers and neighborhood whisperings keep insisting that Katz’s Delicatessan has been bought by a developer, its owners say all the talk is, well, just chopped liver. Last Friday, when The Villager called to inquire if the legendary Lower East Side eatery indeed had been sold, co-owner Alan Dell quashed the rumors like a potato pancake.
Laughing heartily, he said, “You’re talking to the owner. No it wasn’t.”
Dell said, however, that while they would like to take advantage of the property’s copious air rights, they don’t want to do it at the cost of the historic deli.
“Basically, what we’d like to do is to build above, but keep the store below,” he said. “Business is really good. There’s no reason to end the business. We’ve been here so long, 120 years.”
That’s hello in Polish for those of you who don’t know, like me, until sometime this afternoon.
I’ve been in Krakow since yesterday, and suffice to say that it is quite the experience for anyone remotely interested in Jewish identity and culture. Once a thriving community of 65,000 Jews, 90% were killed in the early years of the Holocaust, with only a few hundred remaining in the city today. Communism drove the community underground, with many Krakow Jews losing their identity through intermarriage or simply a self-imposed denial. Food, once the bedrock of the Jewish world here in the land known as Galicia, dissapeared from the Jewish plate, as communism’s restrictions and the lack of kosher supplies rendered the dishes of eight centuries a mystery.
Such has been the story all over Eastern Europe: Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia, in the lands where the shtetl was once vibrant, and the Ashkenazi cuisine formed the bedrock of what we eat each time we visit the delicatessen. In these places, all that remains of Jewish identity are the skeletons of synagogues and cemetaries. But Krakow was different. As the intellectual hub of Poland, the tail end of communism sparked an interest in Jewish culture and history…from gentile Poles. Since the Holocaust the Jewish past was buried, and they decided to bring it alive, celebrating the Jewish contribution to Polish history and culture as an expression of their own individuality.
What started as a small film festival in 1988, blossomed into a Jewish cultural festival, with concerts, lectures, and art exhibitions. Art galleries and small restaurants emerged, serving the foods that the Jewish community once ate (the recipes were provided by the few surviving members and old cookbooks). When Steven Spielburg filmed Schindler’s List here in 1993, it set off a tourist bonanza, that has brought millions to the Jewish quarter here, known as Kazimierz. Money from the visits, and international donations have funded the cultural festival, the restoration of several synagogues, and museums.
But this is a blog about food, so I’ll jump to that. When the area was rebuilt, preserving and expanding on the Jewish heritage, several restaurants emerged that served Jewish food. Most were owned and operated by Christian Poles (as are most of the Jewish museums and institutions here), with foods that were typical of Galician Jewish cooking. What’s amazing is that these are foods that provided the basis for the Jewish American Delicatessen, yet would never be found in any deli on that continent. It is historic cooking, and short of picking up a cookbook, the best way to experience deli’s roots.
The first place I visited was called Ariel, though it must be said that all of these restaurants have similar menus. This was the first of the Jewish restaurants, but it is also the most tourist oriented and extremely tacky…to the point of being offensive. There’s live klezmer every night (as in all these restaurants), but Ariel also sells Jewish trinkets, including little figures of Hassic Jews holding bags of money. Supposedly Poles find them to be good luck. It’s straight out of Borat.
At Ariel I had two things:
Berdytchov soup: This is a local soup from a nearby town, which is basically a honey and cinnamon beef based borscht, minus the beets. Imagine sweet and sour cabbage soup, with cubed potatoes and carrots, little bits of brisket (very little), and a taste that mixes tomatoes and baked apples. Sweet is an understatement, although the Polish Jewish taste always had a proclivity toward sweet.
Stuffed pipkes: Once upon a time, goose and duck were the protein of the Jewish diet. Chicken was leaner, and less desired, and beef was very rare in the shtetl. But oh, the joys of a fatty goose. Pipkes are a classic dish, which involve stuffing the skin of a goose neck with a mixture of chopped chicken liver and little tiny bits of dough. The neck is then closed, and the whole thing is fried, emerging as a crisp, golden, shell of fat with warm, oozing chopped liver on the inside. Light it ain’t. I never imagined something that could make chopped liver seem like diet food, but this is so rich in fat, it’s like the poutine of Jewish food. Still, when fried perfectly (one was overdone and gamey), it is a blessing…imagine crisp chicken skin wrapping sumptuous, creamy chopped liver with little buds of dough. It reminded me of fried haggis…but that’s not a comparison many of you will know.
Today I had a whirlwind of eats.
Started off by bumping into a baigel vendor on the street. No, it’s not spelled wrong. They call them baigels here. Your morning nosh was invented in Krakow, possibly 400 years ago, by Jewish bakers. And though Jews don’t bake them, the round bread has found its way into Polish cuisine, so that it’s sold on every street corner by little women in carts. They’re more like pretzels here, thinner, and with a bigger hole, but as one Jewish survivor told me, the Jewish versions were actually even more thin. How did it taste? Like a bagel. The crust was super crisp, and it was twisted (like those of Montreal), but the inside was light, sweet, and dense, like those in New York. Best of all, you could get salt, poppy seed, or sesame seed flavored.
In fact, there’s a New York bagel place here called Bagelmama, which was opened by an American a few years back. His bagels are more the shape one finds back home (smaller hole, more surface, less crunch), and he does them up with cream cheese and all the trimmings. I have to say, his are better than most of the bagels I’ve had in LA, or Chicago, or other areas of the hinterlands.
For lunch I hit up Alef, which recently moved from the Jewish area, close by to a new hotel. Rather than play up the whole shtetl kitch angle, the new dining room is surprisingly refined and tasteful. So too is the food.
The kreplach soup I had was possibly the best ever. The chicken broth was dark and heavily flavored with onion, while the meat inside the perfecly pinched little pockets of dough, was garlicky and extremely tender.
What really won me over at Alef was the pate of goose liver, which was basically a terrine of cooked goose liver (not fattened like foie gras), that reminded me of a gamier meat loaf. It was surprisingly light and soft, and it came with the most amazing horseradish chrein sauce that was creamy, sweet, and fiery (in that succession). Rather than play up on the Jewish imagery, they focused on the food and elevated it to a higher place.
Belly bursting, I’ve now just arrived from dinner at Klezmer Hois, the largest of the Jewish themed restaurants here in Krakow. Housed in an old mikvah, it is definitely a nostalgic place, though the focus is on the music and creating that bohemian atmosphere. A very good band played classic Jewish and klezmer songs with mixed enthusiasm.
I tried two absolute classic Galician dishes:
-Carp Jewish Style: this is cold, cooked carp buried in a thick, sweet jelly with slivered almonds. It is actually eaten by Poles every Christmas and very typical to the area. All I can say is…interesting. Acquired taste for sure. More like fish jello. Probably a good reason so few delicatessens carry this.
-Cholent: the traditional sabbath stew that slow cooks overnight. A mixture of meat, beans, vegetables and potatoes. It’s meant to be eaten and then slept upon, to fully enjoy the sabbath rest. Imagine the thickest beef stew you’ve ever encountered, then add in tons of starch and protein and cook until it’s a paste. The flavor is mild, and rather appealing, but it now lives in my gut for a good few years.
Anyway, the cholent is begging me to sleep, and I have a big day tomorrow…Auschwitz and then off to London. So I’ll leave it here. But I will say the following…
Most Jews think of Poland as the place where Jews died. But for 800 years it was a place where they lived, loved, worked, thought, studied, prayed, and ate. The foods we love at the deli came from here, with much influence from Polish life. Don’t judge Poland on what the Nazis did. Yes, there exists some anti-Semitism, but the renaissance of Jewish culture here, brought to life by non-Jews, is astounding and must be seen to be believed. Open your heart as they opened theirs.
In a few hours I’m off to Krakow and London, where I’ll be spending the next week researching two chapters for the book. I will try to post while I’m over there, but as things get tighter on the writing end, the updates will likely be delayed. Rest assured, I will eventually be posting pictures and videos of hot salt beef sandwiches from Brick Lane as well as interesting tidbits from the Jewish quarter in Krakow.
But before I go, I have a little treat for you all. I was interviewed today by the lovely Helen Jupiter, a blogger with Pickled, the food section of cooltastic Jewish culture site Jewcy.com I think you’ll find it interesting.
OR JUST READ IT BELOW:
David Sax is a man on a mission. His goal? To save the Jewish delicatessen from extinction. His tools? A website called Save the Deli, and a forthcoming book due out in the fall of 2008. He’s road-tripped across America, visiting and writing about the last of the traditional delis, and ingesting several hundred pounds of meat along the way. Tonight he leaves for Poland to explore the land from which deli sprang. Before departing, he found a few moments to tell us why he’s fighting for the future of deli.
Q:Why is the institution of the Jewish delicatessen endangered, and what is causing its slow extinction?
A:There are a lot of different factors eating away at the delicatessen: Rents have risen as have the costs of doing business and finding products. Tongue is so expensive now, that many delis refuse to carry it. They’re being squeezed out by their own menus.
Sprawl and suburbanization have reduced the number of delis in an area. Where once city neighborhoods had a few dozen in a square mile, you now have one per dozen square miles…in a shopping plaza, next to a Cheesecake factory.
Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe is a thing of the past. The people who made this food, and ate it habitually are a dying generation. Not so with other cultures. As long as China exists, there will be Chinese restaurants.
Obsession over fat and health has given the deli a bad rap, even though there’s more fat in a tuna sandwich than a corned beef one. And god help you if you order it lean. I will personally track you down and kick your ass.
Finally, the families who run these places move on, or sell the business, which usually spells disaster for the food.
Q: How and when did you become passionate about the preservation of the traditional, Jewish deli?
A: I’ve always loved deli, especially the most traditional ones. When I was a kid, my father would take my brother and I to the old places in Montreal and I’d just soak it up. But over the years, I noticed more and more of those places closing, here in Toronto, or in Montreal, or elsewhere. ON my second ever trip to New York, two friends and I walked fifty blocks to eat at Wolff’s, on 57th st. When we finally got there, we beheld an empty store and our hearts just dropped to the pavement. By the time I reached university it was a pet obsession of mine, which a friend and I turned into a term paper for a Jewish sociology class. That gave birth to the idea for the book, which led to the creation of the website, which led to several hundred pounds of meat that I’ve ingested in the past year. Oddly enough, I’ve actually lost weight.
I wrote the book proposal in 2006, and got the book deal shortly after. I started the site in February 2007, the day I left for a cross country deli road trip.
Q: You’ve traveled the world in search of remaining delis, which you’ve documented on your blog and in your forthcoming book. What were your top three favorites?
A: I don’t play favorites…it’ll get me in trouble. But for purists, you can’t get any better than a hand cut sandwich. For hand cut, the three everyone must visit are Katz’s in New York (the quintessential New York delicatessen), Langer’s in Los Angeles (home to the finest pastrami in any land), and Schwartz’s in Montreal (a temple of Montreal smoked meat…pastrami’s badass cousin).
Q:Why do you view the Jewish delicatessen as such an important cultural institution? What are we losing as their numbers decline?
A: The Jewish delicatessen is the last culinary linkage to the Ashkenazi past. Think of it as an edible archive or library for the kitchens of a world that was decimated and burned to the ground (quite literally). When we eat in a deli, we reconnect to our roots, and honor those who came before us. Some people say it is a great immersion in nostalgia, but I think it’s more than that. These are family owned restaurants, for the large part, in a society where the corporate menu is everywhere. The food there is real…home made…and very fresh. It’s a style of eating that’s always informal and fun. Have you ever had a bad time in a deli? Does anyone ever cry in a deli? Not that I’ve seen. Eating in delis, whether in New York or LA or in London, is a unique experience. No other restaurant replicates that feeling, and believe me, many have tried. As delis close, we are not only losing the chance to eat this disappearing food (a perfectly steamed corned beef sandwich is an otherworldly pleasure), but also an environment of Jewish/American humor and atmosphere that has contributed so much to this society.
Q: So what does this say about us as a people?
A: I think it speaks both to our desire to fit in, built by millennia of oppression, but also of a slight disregard for the past. When I go to a Jewish wedding and it’s sushi and Thai spring rolls and more of that wretched Chilean sea bass with the limp vegetables, I always wonder how we can be so Jewish in the mind and in the soul, but in the stomach we’re completely assimilated. It saddens me.
Q: How and where did Jewish deli culture actually originate?
A: The foods came from the Ashkenazi world; Poland, Russia, Romania, Lithuania, Ukraine, having evolved over centuries by constantly exiled communities ping-ponging around Central and Eastern Europe. They took dishes with them, adopted local flavors and foods, made them kosher, and then got expelled into the next territory. So when they came to America in the late 19th century, there was this fusion-like mish mosh of foods from all over the continent. It collided in the Lower East Side, and quickly evolved from home cooked meals, to pushcart treats, to take away shops, and finally to the sit down delis that we know today.
Q:If you could only have one traditional, Jewish deli menu item for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A: Matzo ball soup. I love sandwiches, but can only eat so much of them. Matzo ball soup however is limitless in its capacity to satisfy me. I could eat a bathtub full.
Q: Why are you headed to Poland tonight?
A: To see what remains, if anything, of the land where deli sprang from. Interestingly, there’s been a tremendous revival of Jewish culture in Krakow (where I’m headed), including klezmer music, literature, and Jewish foods. Even though very few Jews live there, young gentile Poles are eagerly eating Jewish foods. It’s weird, and rather unsettling in a way. Some of these restaurants just serve pork and say it’s traditional Jewish food. Some supposedly have big nosed Jew statues out front. Part of it will be Borat, but I also hope to discover some genuine traces of Jewish culinary culture. If Jewish food can be reborn in the land where it was purged, there’s hope for us all.