The piece is below, but check out another mention in Gourmet, where I opine about the hot dogs at Montreal’s Orange Julep.
A DELI-CUT ISSUE
Pastrami on rye with a side order of culture
Author documents the changing way we nosh, one deli at a time
by Corey Mintz
David Sax might be the world’s foremost delicatologist. Just because it’s a made-up term, and he is probably the only one, doesn’t detract from his qualifications.
From delicatessen to delicatessen he has eaten his way across Canada, the United States and Europe, earning a PhD in pastrami and a black belt in blintzes.
Through his blog and soon-to-be-released book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen, Sax tells us of the past, present and future of delis.
He’s collected the sepia-tinted stories of this once common cuisine, connecting the taste of today’s sandwich with the parents and grandparents of modern deli owners.
The book ($32.99, out Oct. 20) details how these cured meats came to be, and the position they once had in the community.
The deli was once the meeting place of urban Jews, after the synagogue and schvitz (steam room). According to Sax, one Toronto schvitz had a direct hotline phone used to place delivery orders from Coleman’s Deli.
Noshing with Sax at Caplansky’s Delicatessen is like sitting at Sinatra’s table.
There is a good deal of handshaking from friends, associates and well-wishers, and a bit of schmoozing between tables. Soon our group has grown spontaneously from two, to five, to eight. This is what delis used to be like, back when they were plentiful.
As we plow through a platter of meats, Sax pulls out a little black book and leans forward, speaking in a hushed, excited tone. “All right, so let’s dish on the chopped liver,” he says, clicking his pen and licking his lips. “What are your thoughts?”
Furiously he scribbles notes on the consistency of the chopped liver, moistness of the smoked meat, smokiness of the turkey and sweetness of the versht (salami). A delicatologist’s work is never done.
“I tend to compare similar dishes over and over – matzo ball soup, pastrami, corned beef – so those subtle differences, especially first impressions, are key to write down.”
His waistline defies his work. The 30-year-old Sax, prematurely seasoned with salt-and-pepper greying hair, is still slender for a guy who’s guzzled schmaltz from Portland to Poland.
“I just controlled the portions,” he says, adding that he never ordered a salad on his deli odyssey. Instead he began a jogging regimen. After the morning jog he drove, in the dead of winter, from deli to deli across America. His quest officially began in 2006, though unofficially he’s been researching the book since he was 6 months old.
In Los Angeles he found a thriving deli scene, in Las Vegas a sham tourist version. Throughout most of North America he sifted though the crumbling remains of family businesses, vestiges of a century-old going concern.
The seeds of deli culture were sprouted in the late 19th century by Jews who brought recipes with them from Europe and Russia: kishke, karnatzel, kasha varnishkes, kreplach, knishes, those are just the Ks. At first sold out of carts on the street, these eventually combined with the German/American delicatessen, a place where prepared foods were sold.
In the early 20th century, there were a couple of thousand traditional delis in New York alone. Now there are a few dozen.
After the near eradication of European Jews during World War II, the cultural supply line to deli food was cut off.
“So long as a billion and a half Chinese live in China, there will always be a family in Fujian willing to move to America and open another Chinese restaurant. Jewish delicatessens don’t have that option,” Sax writes. “Theirs is the food of a partially destroyed people, three generations or more removed from its source.”
Some survivors who settled in Toronto founded a post-war community of delis around Kensington Market. In the 1950s the area boasted Smith’s Delicatessen, Becker’s, Litman’s, Shapiro’s, Goldenberg’s, Switzer’s, The Tel Aviv, Peter Wellt’s and Shopsy’s. They’re all gone now. The families have closed up or sold their shops.
Sax sees the future of deli in people like Toronto’s Zane Caplansky or Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen in Portland, operators who take an artisanal approach to sandwich making. These restaurateurs are discarding the mass-production meats that helped discredit the deli’s legacy. They are resurrecting the old, labour-intensive methods of curing, brining and stuffing by hand.
To these few a new audience flocks, one that doesn’t see them as a meeting place for Jews or New Yorkers. The new crowd comes for the crossover appeal of a well-made sandwich.
“This isn’t just about feeding Jewish food to Jews.” He points around the room. “Look at the people who are in here; Chinese students from U of T, WASPy businessmen. Food knows no boundaries.”