Save the Deli

Bruni Blowback: Kosher conundrums, Mustard Mayem, and a whole lot of 2nd Ave Deli

Earlier this week I posted New York Times critic Frank Bruni’s review of the 2nd Ave Deli, which he gave one solid star. Now, as happens with popular restaurants, there was feedback and commentary, but I think even Bruni is astonished at how much this story has generated. So over the past few days, he has been tackling the questions and criticism on his blog.

On Feb 13th, Bruni expanded on his article by calling for people to share their opinions on delis.
Ask five different New Yorkers where to find the best pastrami sandwich in the city and you may well get five different answers, because one New Yorker insists on hand carving (and thus favors Katz’s) while another insists on a stack of meat as high as the Empire State Building (and thus favors the Carnegie Deli).

Hard-core deli aficionados may like to go to one restaurant for pastrami, another for knishes, another for tongue.

So how about it? Here’s a chance to state your opinion, make your case, cast your vote. (It’s the Deli Primary!) Where would you go for the various delicacies in the deli canon?

He got over 120 responses, and the numbers are still growing. My favorite is the following:
When two MAVENS get together in a kosher deli, the number of opinions is to the power of three. It’s too lean, it’s too fatty, it’s too cold, it’s too hot, it’s almost right, it’s not quite right, it’s too salty, it’s too dry, it was better last week, what’s with this rye bread, the pickles are NEBACH, my grandma….

Now, you’d think that would settle it, but deli being deli and Jews being Jews, this was far from over. The smell of religious authority drifted through the air and came down on the day of love. In A Kosher Quibble, Bruni discussed his confusion at the anger he received from readers who challenged the 2nd Ave Deli’s kosher designation. Well, this was to be expected.

The writer, Fred Bernstein, said: “I was surprised that you described the Second Avenue Deli as kosher. Because it is open on the Sabbath, almost no observant Jew would consider it kosher.”

Ahhh, Bruni has tapped into the great Glatt Kosher vs. Kosher debate, which is at the heart of the orthodox community. Without getting too deep, I’ll explain. A kosher deli, such as the 2nd Ave Deli, or Liebman’s, or Ben’s, serves kosher food, kosher products, but they do it seven days a week and they don’t have constant supervision. A Glatt Kosher deli, like Noah’s Ark or Kosher Cajun, serve glatt kosher products, are closed Friday nights and Saturday and other holy days, and they constantly have the supervision of a mashgiach, who is basically a kosher cop that monitors the kitchen. The most orthodox Jews, including the Hasidim, are all glatt kosher, and would never eat in a place open on shabbat. But to many conservative or modern orthodox Jews who are kosher, a place like the 2nd Ave Deli is just fine.

Still, despite the many responses and fine explanations, Bruni wasn’t satisfied, so he brought in the opinion of Jeremy Lebewohl, the 2nd Ave Deli’s owner. And Jeremy decided that he was ready to stir the pot a bit.

“It’s very difficult to sum up, because Judaism is all laws,” he said. “You go to law school for three years. You have to study Jewish law for 20 years.People toss around the word ‘glatt’,” he said, suggestion that if I “Really want to stir up more of an argument” among readers, I should venture into glatt-ness. (Here goes!)

“When people use it,” he said, “they’re not using it properly. People always ask, ‘Are you glatt kosher?’ It’s today come to mean: super-kosher, a higher level of kosher. That’s incorrect.”

Glatt, Mr. Lebewohl explained, “refers to an inspection of the animals’ lungs.”

And he said it’s used incorrectly — or misleadingly — even by kosher purveyors.

“I buy my chickens from a few different vendors,” he said. “One of them labels one of the boxes, “glatt kosher chickens.” There’s no such thing. There’s no checking of the lungs of chicken after the slaughtering process. There’s no way for chickens to even have this term. But it’s a smart marketing ploy. Customers see that and assume a higher level of kosher supervision.”

So now we have a review, which has turned into a Talmudic debate on both the nature of deli and of kosher. Does it stop there? Hell no, because Bruni happened to mention in his review that he doesn’t like mustard on his pastrami sandwich (FOR SHAME). This brought the reprimand from Barry Levenson, Curator and CMO (Chief Mustard Officer), Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, 100 West Main Street, Mount Horeb, Wisconsin.

Bruni, in turn, calls for Shakespearian references to mustard, including this gem from the Taming of the Shrew:

Act IV Scene III
I cannot tell; I fear ’tis choleric.
What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?
A dish that I do love to feed upon.
Ay, but the mustard is too hot a little. [25]
Why then, the beef, and let the mustard rest.
Nay then, I will not: you shall have the mustard,
Or else you get no beef of Grumio.
Then both, or one, or any thing thou wilt.
Why then, the mustard without the beef. [30]
Go, get thee gone, thou false deluding slave,
[Beats him]
That feed’st me with the very name of meat:
Sorrow on thee and all the pack of you,
That triumph thus upon my misery!
Go, get thee gone, I say.

All told, there’s been hundreds of comments, emails, and likely tens of thousands of reads on this one review. To anyone who says that no one cares about Jewish deli, I see no greater evidence than this passionate display of love and intellectual curiosity. Deli is passion. Deli is life. Deli is alive.

I’m away all of next week, so just fwd all questions to Frank Bruni.

One Response to “Bruni Blowback: Kosher conundrums, Mustard Mayem, and a whole lot of 2nd Ave Deli”

  1. julia s Says:

    so interesting! The debate re Kosher or Not Kosher or what kind of Kosher keeps going! I love the clip you quoted as everyone discusses the deli – it is a constant in our lives, and our discussions of food (too salty, not salty enough, not like my mother’s chopped liver, etc.etc.) We are predictable, and always ‘discussing’!

    Safe travels, deli maven.

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