Sunday, November 08, 2009

Save the Deli!

I'm only about a quarter into this book dedicated to the Jewish deli, but it is fascinating. Although author David Sax may have omitted reference to your favorite deli, anyone who enjoys a good pastrami sandwich or plate of kishke will say a b'rucha for this book.

I purchased the book last Tuesday at a signing in connection with Sax's appearance in the Free Library of Philadelphia's author series. Coincidentally, Tuesday was National Sandwich Day, the birthday of John Montague, reputed to be the inventor of the sandwich. (A blatant lie.)

In his talk, Sax outlined the two primary reasons why the Jewish deli is in such serious decline (from a couple thousand in the early part of the century in New York City to maybe a couple hundred today).

The first reason is simple economics. The traditional foods served by the deli have very high material costs. The margin on that $9 or $14 pastrami sandwich will be a buck at best. Add in high rents (especially in Manhattan) and labor costs and you've got a business challenge of the first order.

The second reason -- and the one Sax spent most of his time discussing -- is culture. He quickly touched on a variety of cultural reasons for the deli's decline (generational change, changes in food tastes, etc.), but I found one particularly interesting: No homeland for keeping the tradition alive. For example, the reason why Italian restaurants are still going strong, even though changes in U.S. immigration law largely shut off the Italians as much as the Jews in 1920, is that there is still an Italy with a thriving, evolving food culture. Same goes for the various Asian cuisines and just about any other ethnic cuisine you can think of. Not so Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine: the Holocaust wiped out the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe and, with it, the natural homeland of their cookery.

That's not true of the style of Jewish cuisine that has most recently taken root and thrived in America, Israeli/Middle Eastern cooking. Falafel stands are ubiquitous, as Israelis migrate to the U.S. and open restaurants offering their home cooking, as reinterpreted here in America. Because there is an Israel with its own cooking traditions (albeit, adapted from Arabic cultures, just as Ashkenazi cooking adapted from Polish, Germany, French and other european cultures), there is a living base from which to grow.

In his Philadelphia talk, Sax offered a number of possible solutions -- including his belief that delis should eschew buying finished corned beer and pastrami from the large processors, like Hebrew National (a unit of Conagra), and instead cure their own meats and make everything they can on premises. Since he was speaking in Philadelphia, he singled at Hershel's East Side Deli in the Reading Terminal Market as a fine example. (That's where he lunched.)

Sax is definitely going to be a big hit at all the pre-Hanukah Jewish Book Fairs around North America. The fact that he's from Toronto and has a passion for Montreal smoked meat, you shouldn't against him hold.

David's web site: Save the Deli

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