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Save the Deli!

May 4, 2010

While I may not consider myself Jewish in the religious sense, I still feel strongly connected to the cultural aspect of being Jewish. This connection is incorporated into my life most strongly (and frequently) through food. I don’t know much about my personal history, but when I bite into a pastrami sandwich or slurp up the last drops of homemade matza ball soup, I take great comfort in knowing that generations before me have enjoyed the same meal. And if I happen to be eating that meal in public, I like the feeling of belonging, of looking around and knowing everyone else is feeling the same way.

This sentiment is at the heart of David Sax’s excellent book, Save the Deli. Disheartened by the seemingly dismal future of the disappearing deli, Sax goes on a journey across the country and around the world visiting delis to check the pulse of the industry and see where things are going from here. He starts in New York, at Katz’s of course, and makes his way across the states discovering great deli in unexpected places (behind bullet-proof glass in Detroit), unfortunate deli in expected places (casinos in Las Vegas) and sadly skipping over some important deli along the way (you could go to Krakow, but not Boston? Oy vey!). All along, he explores how the history of deli is inextricably linked to the history of the Jews in each place, providing some interesting educational tidbits to accompany his mouth-watering, envy-inducing descriptions of his meals. (Do not, I repeat, do NOT read this book while hungry). The people he meets along the way (including a cameo from Mel Brooks in L.A) are delicious characters deserving of books themselves.

One particularly memorable story was when Sax met David Apfelbaum, of David’s Delicatessen in San Francisco. An Auschwitz survivor, David came to the U.S to open up his deli that soon became an institution. Now, all of his delis are closed except for the original location, but this hasn’t hurt his spirit.

The menu, too, was packed with David’s verse: “Chicken Liver with Schmaltz: Eggs, onion, salt and pepper have been chopped in with the liver for as long as anyone can remember. The recipe is so unalterably classic, only a culinary Philistine would dare violate its venerable timelessness. The livers are chopped 1179 times. Some people consider this a rather arbitrary number. Who knows? It could be that David somehow believes this precise method adds something somehow. Then again it could just be his lucky number. In either case, he’s the boss.”

One thousand one hundred and seventy-nine? I turned to David and asked what the meaning of the joke was. The corners of his mouth creaked up a bit as he rolled up his sleeve to reveal the faded blue 1179 tattooed on his forearm. I felt a shiver. This man had taken the Nazi’s branding and turned it into a joke on a deli menu. I thought I had a twisted sense of humor, but this would have made Lenny Bruce squirm.

It was passages like this that made reading Save the Deli akin to eating in a deli itself. As he says many times, Jews more than any other people are connected by their history and, in many cases, history is all they have left. Eating certain foods may seem like a trivial way to honor this, but Sax effectively explains why keeping this culinary traditions alive is so important. While it may be a little depressing to read at times, because more often than not it reads as a swan song, this book is a great contribution to the preservation of Jewish culture.

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