Save the Deli

The Mavens

I’ve been meaning to post this article for almost two years, but thanks to John Harris for reminding me that I hadn’t. It’s a great story about localism in the deli scene, and an inspiring portrait of a group of nostalgic noshers who gather at Saul’s, in Berkeley.

Noshtalgia” for Pastrami
While Jewish delis are fading nationwide, local delis with the foodie credo—“It’s the ingredients, stupid!”—are thriving.

By L. John Harris

I’m a pastrami man. When I go to a Jewish deli, that 100-year-old emporium of Eastern European comfort food, I order a pastrami on rye. Not only do I eat this classic and very fatty sandwich (without guilt), I study it. This qualifies me as a “maven,” the Yiddish word for expert, or in my case, “obsessive-compulsive deli guy.”

I’m not the only deli maven around, to be sure. Just about every Jew ever born in an American city of any size considers himself or herself a deli maven with childhood memories of particular foods and favorite delis that were part of the fabric of their early lives. Whether it’s memories of Sunday morning outings with Grandpa and Grandma for potato latkes and applesauce, or after-school stops with friends for hot dogs and sodas, many Jews link deli—the food and the place—with the pleasures of family and childhood.

And it’s not only Jews who crave and remember their childhood delis. The American Jewish deli of the late-19th through the mid-20th century emerged as an institution that invited the whole world to come eat and relax in a process of mutual assimilation. According to Ted Merwin, professor of Jewish Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, increasingly prosperous immigrant Jews became more American by eating out at the deli, and non-Jewish Americans came to appreciate “Jewishness” at the delicatessen.

At Saul’s in the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto in North Berkeley, I meet with fellow mavens almost as a culinary antidote to the French and Italian dominance and sometimes PC preciousness of Berkeley’s foodie scene. We even have an official maven’s club—“The Mavens,” of course—that meets at Saul’s to share our collective deli pleasures.

8 Responses to “The Mavens”

  1. Len Wolfe Says:

    Is there nothing else in the world (according to you guys) other than corned beef and hot pastromi?

    When it was available (years ago) in Boston I would order a pound of rolled beef and by the time I got home I had half a pound and greasy fingers.

    I have tried everything (both of them?) in Boston and still must traipse to NewYork for rolled beef, sliced about 1/16th off an inch thick with the pepper corns and crumbs left over as a delicious “after-bite”…so ??? all you mavens..where ?????

  2. Harvey Weinshenker Says:

    Are there any Hebrew National Kosher Salami on rye mavens out there?


    Where can I buy rolled beef in the New York, New Jersry area ?……..and for the pastrami mavens, what is that white, rubber like sliver on the end of the pastrami ?….it looks disgusting !!

  4. Lawrence Jaffe Says:

    Harvey, I love love HNK Salami on rye or poppy seeded kaiser roll. Am with you all the way!

  5. david schwaber Says:

    I wonder if anyone would comment on where to get good deli in the greater hartford area. I have tried the crown market (just got pastrami there that tasted like it had been soaked in salt)which is good sometimes and Reins deli(they use Hebrew National), but neither one is close to the pastrami quality at the Carnegi in New York. Also, its tough to find good rye in our area(crown has it).

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