Posted on Thu, October 29, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
0 Comments | Categories: Events, Uncategorized,
by intern Becca Stanger
If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have told you that a knish was a new kind of Nerf gun. Apparently, I was utterly ignorant when it came to authentic Jewish delis. I honestly didnt even know that delis were Jewish. To a born and raised Californian like me, delis more or less meant Subway. Or maybe the local Mexican-family-owned sandwich shop where I could get my low-fat turkey and veggie sandwich on whole wheat. Hold the mustard. So reading journalist David Saxs new book Save the Deli was informative for me, to say the least.
In this book, Sax takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of Jewish delis, from New York City to Kansas City to Krakow. While introducing his readers to this diverse world of reubens and matzo ball soup, Sax recounts the intriguing story of modern delis, describing their historic emergence from the pushcarts of 19th century Eastern European immigrants and their recent decline due to rising health concerns, a changing restaurant industry, and an assimilating Jewish culture.
Sax successfully adds color to this educational tour with his exuberant love for delis. With an engaging voice and corny puns, Sax’s excitement for the hallowed temple of salted and cured meats seeps from every page. But be warned Saxs passion is so infectious that you may find yourself drooling over the most unlikely of things, including pickled chicken fat and broiled tongue.
Saxs deli bible, though, is far more than an informative and entertaining guidebook. With compelling stories of the dedicated people behind the deli counters, Sax remind us of the foods rich cultural significance. Wrapped up in our seemingly mundane pastrami sandwich lies the story of Beni the surgeon - a Puerto Rican meat cutter whos spent his career continuously relocating from closed New York delis. And Rose Guttman a Holocaust survivor who vows to take her coveted blintz recipe to the grave. And Abe Lebewohl - a man who poured his heart and soul into his legendary American deli before his untimely death. Its the underlying stories like these that offer the deli examiner meaningful glimpses into American and Jewish culture.
Last week I was fortunate enough to witness the cultural import of delis firsthand at Save the Delis New York launch party. Like any self-respecting unpaid employee, my fellow Slow Food USA interns and I arrived half an hour early to Bens Deli to secure our spots in the free food line. Despite our diligence, as soon as the food came out we found ourselves elbowing our way through a bustling crowd to get within reach of the heaping plates of corned beef, mustard, rye bread, latkes, kosher hot dogs, and knishes. In the aftermath of the frenzy we emerged absolutely stuffed, extremely happy, and mysteriously covered in splotches of mustard.
Initially I credited this startling craze to the allure of free food. But the scene following the dash proved that this crowd had far more than just a bargain in mind. For hours they lingered, listening to Jelvis the Jewish Elvis sing Heartburn Hotel and cheering deli owners as they held up a record setting 45 feet worth of kosher salami. Long after everyone had finished their meal, the room echoed with conversation and laughter. This event was far more than a chance for free food. It was a celebration. Deli culture meant something far more to these people than just good eating. Underlying the rye and the mustard, the brisket and the blintz was a deep love for a food and a culture.
To learn more about this quirky deli love, pick up a copy of Save the Deli from your local bookstore. And while youre at it check savethedeli.com for a book release party near you. If youre lucky, you might be able to fight your way to a knish or two. But, now that I mention it, bringing a Nerf gun to the battle might not be a bad idea.