Q&A with David Sax of Save the Deli

  David Sax is a man on a mission. His goal? To save the Jewish delicatessen from extinction. His tools? A website called Save the Deli, and a forthcoming book due out in the fall of 2008. He's road-tripped across … Read More

By / November 5, 2007


David Sax is a man on a mission. His goal? To save the Jewish delicatessen from extinction. His tools? A website called Save the Deli, and a forthcoming book due out in the fall of 2008. He's road-tripped across America, visiting and writing about the last of the traditional delis, and ingesting several hundred pounds of meat along the way. Tonight he leaves for Poland to explore the land from which deli sprang. Before departing, he found a few moments to tell us why he's fighting for the future of deli.

Why is the institution of the Jewish delicatessen endangered, and what is causing its slow extinction? There are a lot of different factors eating away at the delicatessen: Rents have risen as have the costs of doing business and finding products. Tongue is so expensive now, that many delis refuse to carry it. They’re being squeezed out by their own menus. Sprawl and suburbanization have reduced the number of delis in an area. Where once city neighborhoods had a few dozen in a square mile, you now have one per dozen square miles…in a shopping plaza, next to a Cheesecake factory. Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe is a thing of the past. The people who made this food, and ate it habitually are a dying generation. Not so with other cultures. As long as China exists, there will be Chinese restaurants. Obsession over fat and health has given the deli a bad rap, even though there’s more fat in a tuna sandwich than a corned beef one. And god help you if you order it lean. I will personally track you down and kick your ass. Finally, the families who run these places move on, or sell the business, which usually spells disaster for the food.

How and when did you become passionate about the preservation of the traditional, Jewish deli? I've always loved deli, especially the most traditional ones. When I was a kid, my father would take my brother and I to the old places in Montreal and I'd just soak it up. But over the years, I noticed more and more of those places closing, here in Toronto, or in Montreal, or elsewhere. ON my second ever trip to New York, two friends and I walked fifty blocks to eat at Wolff's, on 57th st. When we finally got there, we beheld an empty store and our hearts just dropped to the pavement. By the time I reached university it was a pet obsession of mine, which a friend and I turned into a term paper for a Jewish sociology class. That gave birth to the idea for the book, which led to the creation of the website, which led to several hundred pounds of meat that I've ingested in the past year. Oddly enough, I've actually lost weight.

I wrote the book proposal in 2006, and got the book deal shortly after. I started the site in February 2007, the day I left for a cross country deli road trip.

You've traveled the world in search of remaining delis, which you've documented on your blog and in your forthcoming book. What were your top three favorites? I don’t play favorites…it’ll get me in trouble. But for purists, you can’t get any better than a hand cut sandwich. For hand cut, the three everyone must visit are Katz’s in New York (the quintessential New York delicatessen), Langer’s in Los Angeles (home to the finest pastrami in any land), and Schwartz’s in Montreal (a temple of Montreal smoked meat…pastrami’s badass cousin). Why do you view the Jewish delicatessen as such an important cultural institution? What are we losing as their numbers decline? What do you think it tells us about ourselves as a people? The Jewish delicatessen is the last culinary linkage to the Ashkenazi past. Think of it as an edible archive or library for the kitchens of a world that was decimated and burned to the ground (quite literally). When we eat in a deli, we reconnect to our roots, and honor those who came before us. Some people say it is a great immersion in nostalgia, but I think it’s more than that. These are family owned restaurants, for the large part, in a society where the corporate menu is everywhere. The food there is real…home made…and very fresh. It’s a style of eating that’s always informal and fun. Have you ever had a bad time in a deli? Does anyone ever cry in a deli? Not that I’ve seen. Eating in delis, whether in New York or LA or in London, is a unique experience. No other restaurant replicates that feeling, and believe me, many have tried. As delis close, we are not only losing the chance to eat this disappearing food (a perfectly steamed corned beef sandwich is an otherworldly pleasure), but also an environment of Jewish/American humor and atmosphere that has contributed so much to this society. So what does this say about us as a people? I think it speaks both to our desire to fit in, built by millennia of oppression, but also of a slight disregard for the past. When I go to a Jewish wedding and it’s sushi and Thai spring rolls and more of that wretched Chilean sea bass with the limp vegetables, I always wonder how we can be so Jewish in the mind and in the soul, but in the stomach we’re completely assimilated. It saddens me. How and where did Jewish deli culture actually originate? The foods came from the Ashkenazi world; Poland, Russia, Romania, Lithuania, Ukraine, having evolved over centuries by constantly exiled communities ping-ponging around Central and Eastern Europe. They took dishes with them, adopted local flavors and foods, made them kosher, and then got expelled into the next territory. So when they came to America in the late 19th century, there was this fusion-like mish mosh of foods from all over the continent. It collided in the Lower East Side, and quickly evolved from home cooked meals, to pushcart treats, to take away shops, and finally to the sit down delis that we know today. If you could only have one traditional, Jewish deli menu item for the rest of your life, what would it be? Matzo ball soup. I love sandwiches, but can only eat so much of them. Matzo ball soup however is limitless in its capacity to satisfy me. I could eat a bathtub full. Why are you headed to Poland tonight? To see what remains, if anything, of the land where deli sprang from. Interestingly, there’s been a tremendous revival of Jewish culture in Krakow (where I’m headed), including klezmer music, literature, and Jewish foods. Even though very few Jews live there, young gentile Poles are eagerly eating Jewish foods. It’s weird, and rather unsettling in a way. Some of these restaurants just serve pork and say it’s traditional Jewish food. Some supposedly have big nosed Jew statues out front. Part of it will be Borat, but I also hope to discover some genuine traces of Jewish culinary culture. If Jewish food can be reborn in the land where it was purged, there’s hope for us all.

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