Friday, June 05, 2015

Booknote: Save the Deli

David Sax, Save the Deli: in Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-15-10384-5.

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: food, travel, history.
Format: hardcover
Source: My local public library

This book is a bit of history and a bit of travel writing. The future of the Jewish delicatessen is an uncertain one. I found this book to be a bittersweet reading experience; it was also a book that me hungry at times as Mr. Sax is able to bring the food to life with good descriptive detail. Those passages were certainly among the best parts of the book. However, there are also some lengthy passages about places and travel that seemed a bit too long. Such passages left me wishing at times that the author would get to the point. Maybe a little editorial trimming of the fat was in order.

For me, the history of the Jewish deli, how it made it to the United States, how it rose and fell in New York City, rose and fell and rose again in other cities--there was the neat part. We get stories of the entrepreneurs and deli men who took a chance. Some stories are more interesting than others. They are all human interest stories. Some folks do well by sticking with tradition. Others innovated, and yet a few sell out only to find failure. A lesson does come through: hard work and high standards do thrive, even if a bit at a time.

The book is divided into three parts: New York, the rest of the United States, and the Deli Diaspora from Canada to Europe. In addition, there is an appendix of food and yiddish terms (useful for gentiles like me) and a list of the delis mentioned in the book (if you read the book, you will know which delis to visit and which to avoid).

The book was overall a bit of a slow read at times, but it did have some interesting parts. I feel I learned quite a bit, which is always a plus for me.

Given I liked it, I am giving it 3 out of 5 stars.

* * * 

Additional reading notes and comments:

The definition of schmaltz, which is a common ingredient in a good Jewish deli:

 ". . . or rendered fat, most often made by boiling the fat of geese, duck, or chickens" (23). 

Did New York invent the Jewish deli?

"So no, New York didn't invent Jewish deli. But New York provided the perfect incubator for the Jewish delicatessen to blossom into a vibrant symbol of Ashkenazi cookery and an outlet for the melding of Jewish food and American culture" (23). 

A small point of contention I found as I read. While it can be true that delis can be places to find comfort and even passionate love, the example of Meg Ryan the author mentions, from the film When Harry Met Sally, is not accurate. In the film (you can find the scene in YouTube if you must), Sally (Meg Ryan's character) is faking an orgasm in a deli to make a point to Harry (Billy Crystal's character). It really has little to do with food. It's a small detail, but it took away from the narrative. However, I am sure the author had to mention this infamous scene because it does take place in a deli (Katz's in New York City, where people to this day do sit at the same table and recreate the scene, not always with amusing results).

Again, when it comes to deli, New York City is not the "be-all:"

"Because while New York is the undisputed spiritual and historical center of the delicatessen world, only a fool believes that great Jewish deli is limited to its five boroughs" (74). 

Here is a question that came up as the author visited Detroit, but it is applicable to other places in the United States.

"As I drove past the chain restaurants that would become an everyday sight over the following two months, I wondered whether there was a place in America's suburban sprawl for something that wasn't new or shiny or different" (84).

I found interesting that in places like Detroit and Kansas City, Missouri, deli survives because black people like it, and they really like it a lot. It can be described as "Black/Jewish fusion" (112). However, keep in mind that to many people, deli is not exactly health food, and blacks do often like very rich foods. As the owner of New York Bakery and Delicatessen in Kansas City says,

"'Blacks don't have problems with eating cholesterol,' Holzmark said, as one of his regular clients ordered a towering Reuben sandwich at eleven in the morning. 'If you've grown up eating barbecue, pastrami is a drop in the bucket. They'll come up to the counter and say 'Man, lay that fat on my corned beef sandwich!'" (112). 

Oh, here is another detail folks do not often talk about: who really makes the food in those delis (hint: it is not Jews):

"In New York, deli workers were a mixture of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Arabs, and Chinese. In Florida, they hired Cubans, Haitians, and Central Americans. But overall, Mexicans were the predominant nationality" (159-160). 

A little more on how Mexican a "Jewish deli" can be:

"Mexican workers are picking the cucumbers in Mexico that are then shipped to Los Angeles, where they are pickled by Mexicans, shipped to a deli by a Mexican driver, unloaded by a Mexican stock boy, then paired with a sandwich full of pastrami that was smoked by Mexican workers in New York, from cattle that was slaughtered in Iowa, on bread that was kneaded and baked by Mexican workers in Detroit. Even the soda was stirred, canned, packed, and shipped by Mexicans" (160). 

And so we get the common American hypocrisy, exemplified in Goldman's Deli in Scottsdale, Arizona (though this happens pretty much anywhere, especially in places full of Republican teabaggers):

"Watching the golfers in Goldman's watching a Mexican invasion on Fox News, chowing down on crisp sweet cherry blintzes prepared by the deli's Mexican cook, it all struck me as incredibly hypocritical" (160, emphasis in original). 


"Mexican and Latin American workers had silently become the new Jewish mothers. Delicatessen fans nationwide owe them an overdue gracias" (160, emphasis in original).

The death of delis due to corporations and the fickle nature of Americans reflect more about them and their values:

"Exit off the freeway and pull into any town or small city.  You'll soon be assaulted by the bright signs of food service outlets found off highways everywhere; Applebee's, Friendly's, TGI Friday's, Cracker Barrel, Cheesecake Factory, Ruby Tuesdays, etc. . . .  But go a little father, as I always do, past the Wal-Mart and the Home Depot, and drive into the historic center of town. There, you'll likely find archeological traces of what was once the American Main Street: empty gas stations, graffiti-covered town halls, and the dusty facade of a forgotten family diner. No one walks the streets here. The people are all back where the lights are brighter, drawn like moths, while Main Street quietly perishes. In this way, the death of America's Jewish delicatessens isn't unique. The problems that affect Jewish institutions continue to be harbingers of what will eventually happen to everyone else. When it comes to where Americans eat, corporations have leveraged your appetite into stock options" (185). 

And that is truly tragic.

Finally, let me wrap up with a little something from around the world. Around the world we find deli in places like Hong Kong and in Havana; well, at least until Fidel Castro forced them out of business. Curiously, you won't find deli in Israel.

"You could not find a pastrami sandwich in Jerusalem if you had Mossad looking for you. Yes, matzo ball soup and other Ashkenazi dishes exist in the Holy Land, but they're pretty much cooked exclusively by grandmothers in private homes. The Israeli culinary landscape is dominated by Arabs. Hummus is everywhere, as is falafel. . . " (192). 

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