...New delis, with small menus, passionate owners and excellent pickles and pastrami, are rising up and rewriting the menu of the traditional Jewish deli, saying that it must change, or die. For some of them, the main drawback is the food itself, not its ideological underpinnings.
So, places like the three-month-old Mile End in Brooklyn; Caplansky’s in Toronto; Kenny & Zuke’s in Portland, Ore.; and Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, N.C., have responded to the low standard of most deli food — huge sandwiches of indifferent meat, watery chicken soup and menus thick with shtick — by moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.
...These new deli owners are bringing a high set of culinary standards to once-plebeian food. They are mashing local potatoes to make peppery hand-wrapped knishes; holding tastings to determine the most savory fat for chopped liver (Mr. Gordon says that butter, the nonkosher choice, tastes best); and even brewing zippy homemade celery tonic — to reduce the carbon footprint, to save on the shipping from Brooklyn and because it simply tastes more like tradition.
...These cooks are fighting — independently, but with similar weapons of salt, smoke and fat — to rescue the Jewish deli, an institution that has been deteriorating in numbers and quality for decades.
“The old-school places are closing faster than I can write about them” said David Sax, the author of “Save the Deli,” a 2009 history of, and guide to, the remaining authentic Jewish delis in North America.
By today’s standards, the classic deli’s food is strikingly unhealthful, its vast menu financially unmanageable and its ingredients no longer in tune with the seasonal products of local farmers. Too many shortcuts are taken: sourdough bread instead of rye, prepared blintzes, lax lox.
...If anything can save the deli single-handedly, it’s pastrami. A Romanian-Jewish-American hybrid of barbecue, basturma (Turkish dried, spiced meat) and corned beef, it is loved by pit masters, salumieri and chefs alike...Pastrami, traditionally made from a fatty cut of beef belly called the navel, is not easy to master. It must be brined for days or even weeks, rubbed, smoked, steamed and sliced at the peak of juiciness. The seasonings — coriander, black pepper, salt, sugar, sometimes cumin or fennel seed — must sing in harmony. At each step, attentiveness is required: to the shape of the piece, its fat content and the tendons that run through it. Great slicers have become the stuff of legend: Katz’s and Langer’s, in Los Angeles, are among the only old-school delis that do it by hand. Some feel strongly that the slices should be thick; others, cold-cut thin.
All this means that pastrami fits right into two major contemporary food cults: traditional cured meats and barbecue. Modern cooks are so enamored of meat that even those with no particular connection to delis — like Tom Mylan, of the Meat Hook in Brooklyn; Elizabeth Falkner, of Orson in San Francisco; and Amorette Casaus, of Ardesia in Midtown — now make their own small-batch versions...
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Jewish Deli. What's Your Response?
Can the Jewish Deli Be Reformed?