Pumpernickel and Dimed

David Sax doesn't want delicatessens to disappear.

He ate blintzes in Brooklyn. He ate ox tongue in London. In Austin,
he ate tacos stuffed with salami, salsa, scrambled eggs, and
potato-pancake shards. Determined to champion the cuisine he’d grown up
loving, Canadian journalist David Sax undertook a six-nation
tasting tour. He’ll talk about the resulting book, Save the Deli: In
Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish
at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen (1475
Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, October 24.

When friends questioned his decision to devote a whole chapter to
Bay Area delis, Sax retorted that this is a culinary capital, despite
the fact that “until very recently, San Francisco was a dying deli
town. … No one had anything good to say about the deli scene in the
Bay Area for years.” This is changing, with a new interest in
sustainably sourced meats and other products; but Sax remembers low
points such as when Vietnamese owners acquired the historic Brother’s
Manhattan Deli in San Francisco and added pho to its menu.

The flipside are those countless delis that keep their identities
intact by continuing to sell only traditional dishes, no matter who
cooks and serves them.

“The best Jewish-deli waiters in New York City are Arab and Chinese
and Turkish,” Sax asserts. Savoring knishes one day in a Scottsdale,
Arizona deli whose co-owner and staff are Hispanic, he overheard
customers complaining about the dearth of Jewish countermen: “That
doesn’t fucking matter anymore,” Sax raged, remembering this. “The food
is the core: kosher food, ideally, but at least Eastern European
Ashkenazi food — and that’s why a Jewish deli owned by Jews that
serves lobster is not a Jewish deli, but a deli owned by Greek Orthodox
Greeks that sells flanken and gefilte fish is.”

Delis represent a universal sense of refuge, Sax believes: “Each of
the delicatessens I visited in New York had stories from the weeks
after the 9/11 attacks, when regular customers came by in droves. The
world they’d known was literally tumbling down, and their first
reaction was to seek out the comforting certainty of matzo-ball soup
and cabbage rolls.”

Fraught with such profound observations, his saga was bittersweet:
While once an urban mainstay, his beloved deli food has fallen into
disfavor with a public that deems it fattening and old hat. Being the
classic cuisine of a foreign culture fails to win it extra points, Sax
says, because “Jewish-deli food is ethnic food that is now no longer
really seen as ethnic food. It’s been in America for over a century,
and Jews are no longer seen as immigrants. People feel that they know
what a matzo ball is and what a pastrami sandwich is. There’s none of
that sense of discovery like when you can tell your friends, ‘We just
found a great Samoan place.'”

But matzo balls and pastrami “are only part of the picture,” Sax
insists, “because there’s so much more to Ashkenazi cuisine.” In Paris,
he tasted salmon roe, chestnut salami, and chopped-liver-stuffed goose
neck: Such marvels, he says, “represent the great untouched promise of
what the Bay Area could have.” 4 p.m., free. SaulsDeli.com


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