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Book reviews

Save the Deli: In Search of the Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen, David Sax, McClelland and Stewart, 2009, 314 pages

  • Ariel Buckley

Corps de l’article

As a vegetarian shiksa, I’m fairly certain I would not be David Sax’s reviewer of choice. Save the Deli is a book about the glories of meat: spiced and smoked navel, pickled and boiled brisket, gelatinous chicken broth, beef intestine stuffed with blood and matzo meal. Sax’s limitless enthusiasm for delicatessen shimmers like grease stains on each page, evidenced not least by his willingness to eat as many as four deli meals per day in the name of “research.”

Organized geographically, Save the Deli follows the same route the author took on his year-long tour of America before leaving the United States to venture through “the deli diaspora”: Montreal, Toronto (Sax’s hometown), London, Brussels, Paris, and Krakow. Beginning with New York, “the de facto world capital of Jewish delicatessen” (5), Sax explores the history, philosophy, and “pastraminomics” of US deli culture. He traces the emergence of the delicatessen back to the massive influx of Ashkenazi Jews to New York City between 1880 and 1920, and credits the resultant combination of kosher, Eastern European, and American cuisines with shaping now-classic deli staples like corned beef on rye. Offering large, cheap portions of kosher or kosher-style food, delicatessens emerged in the 1920s as hubs of Jewish culture and community.

Yet in the mid-20th century, several factors conspired against the deli. The rise of the supermarket and availability of cheap, mass-produced goods made it more difficult to charge for homemade quality. Movement from downtown centres to the suburbs—and the accompanying assimilation—contributed to the dispersal of many Jewish communities, and economic decline hit hard in the 1950s. Perhaps most importantly, the deaths and displacement of millions of European Jews in the Holocaust severed North American Jews’ connections to their homelands, and ended the waves of immigration that had fed the growth of Jewish communities in the eastern United States. Today, impossibly high rents and the cost of maintaining small, often family-run restaurants in an industry dominated by chains present the greatest challenge, while modern health consciousness and dietary restrictions deter many potential customers.

Sax probes these causes, but is at his best when examining their effects. Marbling the book’s meaty historical overview are the ribbons of fat that provide its flavour: the personal stories of individual deli owners, cooks, cutters, waiters, and customers. As Sax journeys across the world, each deli is described in affectionate or disdainful detail, each “Deli Man” vividly depicted against a backdrop of Formica and linoleum. We meet Robby Morgenstein, who with a cholesterol level of 638 refers to himself as a “walking pastrami” (126), and Michel Kalifa, the Parisian butcher who introduces Sax to p’tcha (jellied calves feet) and admonishes him for confusing pickelfleish and corned beef. “‘C’est pas New York, David,’” Kalifa scolds, “‘you have to call things by their proper names. We French, you know, are purists’” (247). Owners committed to high-quality ingredients and homemade dishes are sharply contrasted with corporate operations substituting inferior, processed foods and serving watery matzo ball soup. Sax rails against this type of dilution, likening it to selling the deli’s soul. Despite occasionally inconsistent food writing (there are only so many ways to make fat-streaked flesh sound appealing), Sax’s ability to capture the idiosyncrasies of the places and people he visits ultimately makes this book successful.

Initially, Sax had planned to call his book Death of the Deli, intending it as a “swan song” (273) for a precious but doomed cultural institution, and at times the book does lean toward the melodramatic in its prediction of this deli apocalypse. Yet somewhere en route Sax managed to drum up hope—and publicity—for the future of traditional delis everywhere. His vision of the future includes “sustainable” delis using locally sourced ingredients (such as Jimmy & Drew’s in Boulder, Colorado), though Sax does not directly address the environmental or ethical issues inherent in sourcing and serving massive portions of beef in today’s food industry. There are also some surprising revelations—Los Angeles, of all places, is apparently home to America’s greatest pastrami sandwich. Less surprisingly, Sax dubs Montreal “nirvana for deli purists” (195).

Save the Deli ends on a note of hope, with second-generation Deli Man Jeremy Lebewohl’s reopening of the famous 2nd Ave Deli in New York. It’s a feel-good ending, nostalgic and schmaltzy, and one that Sax certainly had a hand in: the smoked meat connoisseur consulted regularly with Lebewohl in the months leading up to 2nd Ave’s reopening. More importantly, Sax’s tireless promotion, touring, and blogging (www.savethedeli.com) sparked an online deli revival in less time than it took the book to get to press, and his vocal blogger audience influenced at least one deli owner’s decision not to sell his family business (275). Sax attributes both this high level of public interest and his hope for the salvation of the classic deli to a longing for authenticity in a generation tired of over-processed, soulless food. Pure delicatessen, Sax argues, is “healthy in the sense that it [is] soulful, freshly cooked, and faithful” (272). In the words of one loyal customer, delis are “Jewish culture living” (279).

While I’m sure Sax would find this mildly blasphemous, 280 pages, a Yiddish glossary, and an international deli directory later, I am still a vegetarian. Yet while my “kale-deadened tastebuds” (38) will not be revived by a stack of fatty meat in the near future, they will continue to savour knishes and latkes, blintzes, kosher pickles, and caraway-infused rye with a renewed respect for the culinary culture that made these dishes possible.

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