A Book That Will Make You Crave Corned Beef


    A conversation with author David Sax on the past, present and future of the Jewish deli.

    During my senior year of high school, I worked as the cashier at Short Hills Deli in Cherry Hill. Since 1997 (minus a brief time to rebuild after a fire), Short Hills has operated as a Jewish family-run operation, serving standards like matzah ball soup, corned beef specials black-and-white cookies, etc.

    Throughout the Philadelphia area, we have an abundance of notable Jewish delis — Famous Fourth Street, Schlesinger's, Kibitz Room, Ben & Irv's, Murray's, Moish and Itzy's — just to name a few. Sadly, none of these made it into David Sax's book of deli analysis, Save the Deli.

    Despite the lack of attention to our local deli heroes, I was still interested and began reading the book while on a morning train commute. Halfway through the introduction, I found myself craving a hot corned beef on rye, and I posted a picture of the book cover to my twitter page. Almost immediately, Sax himself responded to my post, "Corned beef and eggs is a perfectly kosher breakfast," he tweeted back. (Oh, the powers of social media!)

    Sax, a Canadian Jewish foodie inspired by his grandfather, ventured across the United States and parts of Canada on a quest to understand (and save) the Jewish deli culture, bite by bite. As I imagined his physical condition and health at the end of this trip, the documentary, Super Size Me came to mind. In an email exchange with him, I asked how he maintained his weight and health. "Well, I'm not dead yet, so that's good," he replied. "I basically controlled portions (a bite here, a bite there) and did a bit of jogging. It wasn't like I ate every single sandwich fully."

    The book is organized into vignettes for each deli Sax visits. He meets with the current owner and discusses the history, business struggles and legacy. His motivation seems to be somewhat like the salvage paradigm in that he is trying to discover why Jewish delis around us are closing and how perhaps he could help save them. He also celebrates the Jewish delis that seem to be thriving even in places like Ann Arbor, Mich., Boulder, Colo., and Memphis, Tenn. Each deli is different — some owners buy their products ready-to-serve, while others invest time in their kitchen to prepare classics like matzah ball soup and knishes.

    Sax began his journey in New York City, the mecca of all things pastrami and pickles, and the ideal place to begin his exploration of the American Jewish deli history and culture, which began in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. For example, before there were brick-and-mortar delis, men sold their wives' cooking on the streets in pushcarts. My favorite section was about Los Angeles, where Sax highlights the role of delis in the film and television industries and even has a conversation with Mel Brooks.

    Here's my Q&A exchange with Sax:

    How has this project changed your view of the standard Jewish deli?
    Basically, I realized that there is no such thing as a "standard" Jewish deli.  There are small delis and big delis, new delis that feel old, and older delis that are still relevant.  There are delis with foods that only appear in that one place, and others that have the menu of a TGI Fridays. That variety is what makes delis interesting, because they're not just predictable copies of one another, but a sort of rainbow of matzah balls, so to speak.
    How do you order your favorite deli sandwich? 
    Well, definitely not lean, that's for sure. The fat is where the flavor is, and also the moisture. But rye and mustard all the way. No cheese, though i'm getting into the whole coleslaw on the sandwich thing, especially corned beef.
    Do you think that Jewish delis can survive?
    Yes. They'll keep evolving and finding ways to stay relevant. I don't think they will ever disappear, though we shouldn't expect to see thousands of delis bloom, like they once did. That was a phenomenon that unfortunately won't be happening again.

    It was fun to ride along Sax's adventure, but made me even more passionate to support our local heroes!

    Corned Beef with Spicy Mustard on Rye please,

    The Bubbi Project