January 28, 2010

BOOKS: Save the Deli, David Sax (2009)

In the early 1930s, there were more than 1,500 kosher delicatessens in New York City; by 1960, fewer than 200; today, only a few dozen. What happened to them, and is there any hope for saving the deli? To find out, Sax goes on tours of New York, the United States, and a few international cities in search of great deli, to look for possible keys to deli's salvation.

And he does find success stories. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Zingerman's has become a tourist destination by combining the best homemade ingredients with a gourmet food shop. The Montreal specialty known as "smoked meat" -- something of a cross between corned beef and pastrami -- gives that city a lively deli scene. Langer's, in Los Angeles, offers what Sax says is the best pastrami in the world, and does a thriving business despite its horrible neighborhood. (Heretically, Sax claims that it's Los Angeles, not New York, that is currently the best city in America for good deli, in large part because the families that run the delis are more friendly and cooperative than in most cities.)

A lot of things have gone wrong for the deli since its heyday. As urban dwellers moved to the suburbs, the deli's diners became less centralized, and it hasn't always been easy to attract new customers. Deli classics tend to be time-consuming to make, and expensive to purchase (especially if you insist on top-quality ingredients), and the most popular items, sandwiches, offer the lowest profit margin. And as we've become more obsessed with healthy eating, deli mainstays like pastrami and chopped liver have been perceived as too fatty.

Ultimately, though, Sax argues that it comes down -- as issues of Jewish culture so often do -- to tragic history:

In the flames of the Holocaust, the Jewish world lost more than lives. It lost an entire culture, which survives now only in fragments. In America, every other immigrant group will always have a source for their authentic flavors. 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. Theirs is the food of a partially destroyed people, three generations or more removed from its source. Delis are cooking from the fading memories of a time and place that no longer exist. No more Jews from Poland are coming to New York to open up a delicatessen.

Despite that rather heavy conclusion, Sax's tour of the deli world is an entertaining one. The Deli Men (always capitalized), waitresses (almost always female), and butchers he meets along the way have lively personalities, and most of them have thought long and hard about the survival of their chosen profession. The love of the food comes through in every chapter, and there are moments when you can almost taste the chicken soup.

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