While Jewish delis are fading nationwide, local delis with the foodie credo—“It’s the ingredients, stupid!”—are thriving.
I’m a pastrami man. When I go to a Jewish deli, that 100-year-old emporium of Eastern European comfort food, I order a pastrami on rye. Not only do I eat this classic and very fatty sandwich (without guilt), I study it. This qualifies me as a “maven,” the Yiddish word for expert, or in my case, “obsessive-compulsive deli guy.”
I’m not the only deli maven around, to be sure. Just about every Jew ever born in an American city of any size considers himself or herself a deli maven with childhood memories of particular foods and favorite delis that were part of the fabric of their early lives. Whether it’s memories of Sunday morning outings with Grandpa and Grandma for potato latkes and applesauce, or after-school stops with friends for hot dogs and sodas, many Jews link deli—the food and the place—with the pleasures of family and childhood.
And it’s not only Jews who crave and remember their childhood delis. The American Jewish deli of the late-19th through the mid-20th century emerged as an institution that invited the whole world to come eat and relax in a process of mutual assimilation. According to Ted Merwin, professor of Jewish Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, increasingly prosperous immigrant Jews became more American by eating out at the deli, and non-Jewish Americans came to appreciate “Jewishness” at the delicatessen.
At Saul’s in the heart of the Gourmet Ghetto in North Berkeley, I meet with fellow mavens almost as a culinary antidote to the French and Italian dominance and sometimes PC preciousness of Berkeley’s foodie scene. We even have an official maven’s club—“The Mavens,” of course—that meets at Saul’s to share our collective deli pleasures.
The Mavens don’t have a secret handshake or pay dues, but we do have Maven names, like the Spoon Maven (writer and mime Leonard Pitt) who brings his own spoon to Saul’s because Saul’s soup spoons are too small for him; the Cleanliness Maven (writer Susan Griffin), who is rather serious about hygiene and has been known to send the menu back (not the food!) because of food stains and debris; the Drama Queen Maven (actress Lorri Holt), who can be, well, dramatic; and then there is the Control Maven, who provides each Maven with a printed form at the end of the meal to add up our individual totals so he doesn’t have to do all the math. That’s me.
The Mavens use Saul’s to reconnect with something important in our lives that gets expressed through a convivial and collective experience of taste memories—the matzo ball soup, smoked salmon with cream cheese on bagels, stuffed cabbage, blintzes or kosher pickles right out of the barrel.
When the subject turns to America’s great Jewish delis, King Pastrami or its briny, less smoky/spicy queen, corned beef, are the litmus tests for deli greatness. These are the foods on the traditional Jewish deli menu that can make or break a deli’s reputation. What would the legendary Carnegie Deli in New York be without its one-pound pastrami or corned beef sandwiches that emerged in the 1970s as a publicity stunt? What would 118-year-old Katz’s Deli on New York’s Lower East Side be without the lineup of counter men custom-carving slabs of black-peppered pastrami on huge cutting boards? And would Langer’s Deli in downtown Los Angeles have survived the demise of its Jewish neighborhood (now a poor but vibrant Latino community) if it weren’t for Al Langer’s commitment to hand-carved pastrami that is so well steamed before serving that it melts in your mouth?
Coming to Berkeley as a student in the 1960s, I didn’t have much luck with pastrami. The delis of the Bay Area could not compete with those of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston or even my native Los Angeles. But my childhood passion for pastrami was refueled in the early ’90s while researching a book on the American Jewish delicatessen. A spin-off documentary film, Divine Food: One Hundred Years in the Kosher Delicatessen Trade, made with former Judah L. Magnes Museum curator Bill Chayes, has appeared on PBS and the Jewish film festival circuit. Research for the project took me to almost every great deli in America where I noshed on more pastrami than my stomach cares to remember.
Good delis need a certain kind of ethnic neighborhood to support them: Jews of Eastern European heritage, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians, in particular, according to Jewish studies professor Marc Dollinger of San Francisco State University. The Jews who arrived in San Francisco in great numbers during the Gold Rush were primarily of central European (mostly German) heritage, and their residential patterns, says Dollinger, were different from their co-religionists on the East Coast who lived in neighborhoods with delis on almost every street.
“The Jews of San Francisco have not elected to live in close proximity to one another,” explains Dollinger. “Without a strong nucleus of Jewish residents, I would imagine a successful deli would be difficult to sustain.”
It’s surprising, then, that delis like Saul’s in Berkeley, and the California Street Delicatessen located in San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, are now serving deli sandwiches that rival the best in America. They surpass by far those from San Francisco’s older delis that are still using highly processed products from mainstream manufacturers that feature hormone- and antibiotic-injected beef, artificial caramel coloring and sometimes even liquid smoke and other flavor additives and enhancers.
This Bay Area deli renaissance comes at a time when scholars say the American deli tradition itself is actually fading. The decline is stemming from assimilated Jewish populations and changes in dietary and health awareness that render, for many Jews, the heavy East European deli menu verboten.
“Even in cities where great delis have long thrived, one by one, delis are starting to close their doors,” writes Sheryll Bellman in her recent book America’s Great Delis.
It is perhaps ironic that our beloved but declining Jewish ghetto food tradition is being resuscitated by the alumni of the Gourmet Ghetto. In fact, it’s almost as if one ghetto has come to the rescue of another. Think about it: both Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt and California Street’s menu and recipe consultant Joyce Goldstein are former cooks at Chez Panisse. Levitt also worked at Oliveto in Oakland and Goldstein achieved fame at her Square One in San Francisco. In keeping with Gourmet Ghetto gospel (“It’s the ingredients, stupid!”) bakers, manufacturers and suppliers are collaborating with Levitt, Goldstein and others to bring deli at its best to Bay Area residents.
Classic deli fare, like chicken soup with matzo balls, latkes, braised brisket and stuffed cabbage, are being reinterpreted by these delis in keeping with the Bay Area’s culinary obsession with all things gourmet, sustainable, organic and slow. It’s not about going back to the old days; it’s about making the old dishes healthier and with better ingredients.
Niman Ranch pastrami is perhaps the key product at the core of the Bay Area’s fledgling deli renaissance. Brine-cured Niman Ranch beef (from the fatty “navel” or belly) is dry-rubbed with coriander and black pepper and then shipped to Burbank (outside of Los Angeles), where it is smoked by one of the best remaining pastrami-makers in America, RC Provisions. The creation of Niman pastrami was in part the work of deliman Ari Zingerman of Zingerman’s Deli, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Niman uses Zingerman’s spice-rub recipe for the pastrami. At Saul’s the Niman pastrami is steamed until soft and sliced on a machine; at California Street it is hand-carved the old-fashioned way. At both delis the pastrami is served hot, and it is delicious, according to the customers who keep coming back for more—if not once a day or week like in the old days when fat was still good, then more than once in a while.
In a blind tasting of pastrami recently conducted at Saul’s delicatessen, a panel of experts tasted four pastramis. The tasters included Saul’s owners Levitt and Karen Adelman; former Chez Panisse cook Bob Waks; Bay Wolf restaurant owner and chef Michael Wilde; a group of four New Yorkers and me. A visiting New Yorker had claimed that no pastrami in the Bay Area could compete with Katz’s. And, he added, you can order over the Internet and have Katz’s pastrami delivered by Fed Ex overnight in sealed packages that need only be steamed before serving. Yes, New York pastrami right here in Berkeley!
But the results of the tasting were revealing and, for the New Yorkers, shocking. The clear favorite for all but one was the Niman Ranch pastrami; even the New York Katz’s fan reluctantly conceded that Niman’s was the best of the lot. And all agreed that the difference had to do not with the spice blends or level of smokiness, but with the taste of the Niman hormone- and antibiotic-free, humanely raised meat itself.
All deli meats need good rye bread to be great, and again, the Gourmet Ghetto has come to the rescue. Berkeley’s Acme Bakery, founded by Steve Sullivan (another Chez Panisse alum), produces an Old World rye that resembles what Jews were eating in Europe in the 19th century and earlier, according to Saul’s Levitt.
Great products alone won’t guarantee a resurgent Bay Area deli scene. While a Jewish deli must serve the requisite pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and all the other deli classics, it’s still not sufficient to bring in the crowds that delis need to succeed. So what’s the other essential ingredient? According to Professor Merwin, who has just completed a book on New York’s Jewish delicatessens, it’s the emotional draw of nostalgia and the historical function of the deli as a central meeting place: “A place for Jews to rest and refuel after shopping, meet potential mates, relax in a Jewish milieu, reconnect to childhood memories,” says Merwin.
Delis have to cater to this emotional component not just with great products but with what restaurant critics blandly refer to as “ambience.” And every deli creates an ambience that it believes will express both visually and gastronomically the “language” of its customer base. The ambience at the California Street Deli in the San Francisco Jewish Community Center is actually very contemporary with its black and white decor, including stark photos of old San Francisco, rather than New York. The deli benefits from the support of members of the JCC, a virtual surrogate Jewish neighborhood that Professor Dollinger “requires” for a good deli. Efforts to “Californize” the deli’s ambience are meant to draw in the young moms and other health-conscious patrons who frequent the JCC’s gym, according to consulting chef Joyce Goldstein. So even if the deli does not feel like a traditional New York–style Jewish deli—devoid of a deli counter, for example, or any wafting, briny aromas—the menu, thanks to Goldstein’s insistence, has most of the traditional deli dishes, even ones that are seldom ordered, such as kasha varnishkes (a pasta and grain dish that Goldstein hopes will be accepted as a kind of Jewish risotto).
Saul’s Deli offers more Yiddishkeit (Jewishy feel) than California Street, with its pictures of old New York delis, vintage deli menus, framed record albums featuring Jewish comedians like Mel Brooks and weekly live klezmer music. And it’s no coincidence that Saul’s is around the corner from Berkeley’s own Jewish Community Center and Temple Beth El—both institutions feeding Saul’s as Saul’s feeds them.
The strategy at Saul’s is to offer not only the best traditional products and dishes with plenty of East Coast and Old World nostalgic deli references, but to broaden the classic deli menu with healthy (low-fat), ethnic and vegetarian items—more from the Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jewish tradition than from the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) tradition, says Saul’s co-owner Adelman. She says the future of Saul’s and, perhaps, the Jewish deli in America, is an expanded and lighter menu of international Jewish dishes like hummus, falafel and tabouleh derived from the Jewish diaspora—from countries like Yemen, Syria and Turkey.
“We didn’t go out looking for healthy cuisine,” says Saul’s Levitt. “That is the cuisine.”
With all the talk of the deli dying, it’s hard to imagine that San Francisco can go back in time and become the traditional deli town it never really was. But with delis like Saul’s and California Street, I’m beginning to believe that the Bay Area might be ground zero for a new kind of Jewish deli that balances respect for the deli’s past with culinary hungers of the present. In the meantime, mavens like me have plenty to chew on. No more flights to New York or Los Angeles for a great sandwich. And no more New York attitude about our inferior products either. Yes, I can stay right here and feed my seemingly endless “noshtalgia” for pastrami.
Former Cheese Boarder, cookbook publisher (Aris Books) and food writer (Book of Garlic) L. John Harris has been dabbling in documentary films and is currently completing a collection of his Foodoodle cartoons. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.