Funny, It Doesn’t Taste Jewish…

David Sax is the author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. He is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is his first post. I get asked about Jewish … Read More

By / October 12, 2009

David Sax is the author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. He is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is his first post.

I get asked about Jewish delis dozens of times a day from people all over the country, and the world. They ask about the best places for corned beef, or knishes, or matzo balls. They inquire about delis that they once ate at, whether in New York or Newfoundland, and whether they are still around, still tasty, still lorded over by the funny waitress with the beehive hairdo. I was recently even asked which Jewish delicatessens have gay owners (my answer: None that are out enough for me to mention).

The one question that gets me most often is the simplest. What is a Jewish Deli? The answer should be simple, but it’s not. Because a Jewish delicatessen means certain things to certain people, and other things to others. It varies by city, country, and religious orthodoxy, and what suffices as sufficient to one eater may not be to another. It’s as intricate a question as "What makes a Jew?", but without the foreskin to prove it. I first got asked this in January 2007, by a United States customs officer, at the frozen border separating Ontario from Michigan.

"Where are you headed?"

Well, I’m driving around the country for two months, researching a book.

"A book about what?"

About Jewish delicatessens.

"You mean like Italian delis?"

No, no, Jewish delis. You know, corned beef, pastrami, etc…

"Like Irish delis?"

No, Jewish.

"You sure it isn’t Irish?"

I’m sure.

"Whatever. Enjoy your stay."

Fact is, we Jews don’t have a monopoly on deli. The word "delicatessen" itself is French/German, and every culture, from the Italians to the Vietnamese, have their own place that sells sandwiches, cold cuts, and pickled things.

Those who insist on a more restricted definition of Jewish delis are inevitably the kosher crowd. By their logic, any delicatessen that is kosher (or, if they’re glatt, glatt kosher) is Jewish. Anything else is not. Which excludes the Carnegie, Langer’s, Katz’s, and most of the well-known Jewish delicatessens in America, Canada, and points elsewhere.

I agree that at one point in time, say the late 19th/early 20th century, this was the defining factor. Delis were owned by immigrants from Yiddish Eastern Europe, and kosher was the way of life for the vast majority of the community. But today, with the reality being that most Jews in America eat treyf with abandon, you can’t really hold on to this caveat. There are hundreds of excellent Jewish delis that aren’t kosher, whether they use non-kosher meat or serve pork chops, and yet they remain an important part of the delicatessen landscape. Then there’s the question of ownership. Does a Jewish deli need to be owned and operated by Jews? Do the waiters and countermen have to be Jewish? Not in my experience. Take Adelman’s Kosher Delicatessen, in Brooklyn. Its owner is Mohammed Salem, an Egyptian born Muslim with a degree in Archeology. His food is kosher, and he closes on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover. The chopped liver he serves is incredible, as are his sweet potato knishes, and franks in a blanket. His deli is the bedrock of the community. Does the fact that Mohammed prays to Mecca, instead of Jerusalem, make his deli any less Jewish? Not in my eyes.

So what does this leave us with? Well, how about food? My definition of a Jewish delicatessen is a restaurant that specializes in serving the meat-based foods of Ashkenazi Jews. It is centered on the holy trinity of corned beef, pickled tongue, and pastrami (or Montreal smoked meat). It can also include matzo ball soup, knishes, and other delights, but, like Schwartz’s in Montreal, may not. Now there are plenty of restaurants, like diners or family friendly chains, that serve these items on their menu, but the difference with a Jewish deli is that the deli is known for these foods. It’s why you go and eat there. Not for the Caesar salad lurking in the back of the menu. For the kishke.

Still not convinced? Well, here’s my final test of a Jewish deli…smell. When you walk into a place that calls itself a Jewish Delicatessen, what does it smell like? Like sweating meats, pungent garlic, and baked rugelach? Close your eyes. Listen to the clanging dishes and the woman kvetching to the owner. Breathe it in. You know exactly where you are. You’re in a deli. A Jewish deli.

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