New York-style Jewish delis ain’t what they used to be. In yesterday’s New York Times, Joan Nathan reports on one family-run deli in Newark, NJ. Hobby’s Deli still serves up traditional fare, but serves it to a changing demographic, due to new racial mixes in old Jewish neighborhoods and health concerns plaguing so many of the classics. Delis have introduced salads (like with the green stuff!), and don’t sell nearly as many corned beef briskets as they once did.
If the traditional New York Jewish deli changes fundamentally due to changing customer taste, I’ll be sad, but also interested in how it will evolve in New York. Like so many aspects of Jewish communities, deli food has moved on in other areas of the country. My husband, who grew up eating Attman’s corned beef in Baltimore, chef d’oeuvre of one of two surviving eateries on Corned Beef Row, and my own salt-cured self, who scouted out any corned beef sandwich she could in the Jewish neighborhoods of suburban Detroit, are both products of what I call the deli diaspora.
I can happily recall the moment of rapturous discovery in each place we’ve lived when we discovered the local Jewish, or sometimes, Jew-ish deli: Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, for example, or Rein’s New York-style Deli in Vernon, CT. Rein’s Deli even has a glossary of deli terms. (No, Totowitz, we aren’t in New York any more). Saul’s, only a few blocks from our first house together, has always featured creative interpretations of deli specialties, but I see that they now specialize in seasonal foods, offering chard dolmas, chopped liver with tomato and onion jam, Moroccan chicken, and a side of long beans, almonds and white chard. Hey, that doesn’t sound that bad at all to me. A good cook is a good cook, and there are so many possibilities with the deli canon that it’s hard to believe that more hasn’t been done. There is a huge and wonderful range of Jewish cookery, both Sephardic and unexplored regions of Ashkenazi cuisine, that would do very well in any deli if prepared with love and skill.
I know I’m usually wearing my Superior Oregonian hat when I talk about northern California (and almost always when I talk about New York), but we Eugeniuses have so much to learn from the Bay Area in terms of our local tastes. I think even traditional deli would be seen as exotic here in Eugene, unfortunately. But could we attempt a sustainable, local, deli-style restaurant? Saul’s Deli surely is inspired by Chez Panisse, just down the street, as well as from Michael Pollan, who is a frequent customer. In Eugene, we can similarly learn from restaurants like Belly, which makes French bistro new again in its seasonal, PNW-inflected dishes.
Saul’s has a lot to say about reinventing Jewish deli; you can read on the deli’s blog about their take on reviving traditions of Jewish vegetarian cooking, using sustainable beef, and reducing the size of sandwiches. The Jewish deli, they emphasize, will not survive on nostalgia alone.
I couldn’t agree more. After all, no one is particularly nostalgic about shtetl food, far more traditional than the deli.
But for those of us who love traditional kosher-style deli, we can keep some of the deli traditions alive in our own homes. Joan Nathan seems to disregard the preservation renaissance when she writes:
In the old days, everybody cured their own corned beef and pastrami, made their own pickles, and used bread from a neighboring bakery. Now, few even make their own matzo balls.
This demise, of course, contributed to the rise of the deli and kept it flourishing in its heyday. City life did not lend itself to the big crock of smelly sauerkraut in the studio or curing meat hanging from the ceiling of the bedroom.
But on the West Coast, where we’re preserving our hearts out, and even in some pockets of hip outer boroughs of NYC, where they’re acting like they invented preservation, the old days are new again. In Eugene, since we don’t have anything resembling a Jewish deli (although Barry’s on 13th does have matzoh ball soup, and my husband says he likes their other soups) and we undeniably make some sketchy moves (e.g., my tempeh Reuben and liberal-elite Reuben phyllo appetizers), we have to do what we can.
I thought I’d archive some of my deli-worthy recipes, so you can make your own deli at home. I’m not a New Yorker, or an expert on deli food preparation, but I have to say my preserved food would give a deli a run for its money. And yours can, too, because what I’m doing is not magic or difficult.
Here are some of my resources for making various deli specialties:
- Kosher-style dill pickles.
- Fermented full-sour and half-sour pickles.
- Sauerkraut for Reuben sandwiches and soups. Now is harvest time for fat, juicy cabbages, and if you’d like to make red cabbage sauerkraut, the red cabbages are particularly good right now.
- Brisket made with local dried cranberries and mushrooms. This is my favorite brisket recipe. (The other one in my recipe binder is titled “Traditional, if Dull, Passover Brisket.”) I usually cheat and use prepared dried cranberries and mushrooms in this recipe, but why not dry your own?
- Old-world chicken soup. This often means “with cow bones added,” to beef up the broth. My recipe is inspired by several old Jewish ladies, and one middle-aged one, who made the absolutely best chicken soup I’ve ever tasted in my life. Mine’s not nearly as good as hers, I’ll admit, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a chicken soup in a deli that’s as good as mine. They’re often washed out and watery. Sigh.
- Corned beef or tongue. I’ll be sharing my techniques at the October 10 Master Food Preserver meat class. Please join us, if you’re local and interested in preserving meats!
I’d like to add to my repertoire in the upcoming months. Here are my two quests:
- Rye bread. Polish rye bread, unseeded, is one of my great quests in the West. I had to control myself when I was on fellowship in Buffalo because they had an entire shelf of Polish rye, freshly baked every day. My project for 2009, to become an ace bread baker, did not even sorta kinda come to fruition. OK, OK, I did help for a couple of hours at a fabulous MFP bread baking class, I put some baking cookbooks on my Amazon wish list, and I watched a friend bake bread in my kitchen. Does that count? No? Really? OK. Onward to 2010! If I can figure out how to make a Polish rye loaf at home, I will expire of happiness.
- Potato pancakes. We put the Ore- in Ore-Ida, yo. Oregon potatoes are excellent, so excellent they were bought up by Heinz. : / But anyway, I’ll post a latke recipe this winter. My recipe is quite good, if I do say so myself, but I am a latke purist, and I don’t even like onion messing up my pure, crisp potatoey pillows of heaven. I’ll figure out the proportions and all that, but it might take a while.
And of course, you’ll need applesauce to accompany the latkes. Don’t wait up for me! Now is the time for canning and freezing fall apples as applesauce. Homemade applesauce is about a thousand times better than commercially processed stuff. I don’t have a preference, really, taste-wise, between canning and freezing, but a good, tart apple is essential. Ask at your market which local apples are best for saucing. I always, always freeze at least a cup of applesauce made with fall apples, since winter apples are kept fresh by cold storage, via a method that makes them reluctant to mush up nicely.
And that, my friends, is everything I’ve always wanted to say about deli.