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.
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