Save the knishes
David Sax surveys the endangered pickles and corned-beef that Jews-and non-Jews-hold dear in Save The Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.
Mitch Hedberg says a pastrami sandwich from a deli is like a cow with a cracker on each side. Why is there so much meat on a deli sandwich?
This is food that came out of the immigration of Eastern European Jews, a people who lived extremely poor rural lives in Poland and Ukraine and Russia. So the idea of having a tremendous amount of meat—that was the greatest dream you could ever imagine. In the Old Country, people died of starvation. Then you come to America and a city like Chicago, and the meat is endless, and people went overboard. They celebrated with excess. So now, in our diet-crazed, health-conscious world, we’re like, “Oh my God, how could anyone have thought of that?” But for someone just coming off the boat, from the oppression of life in the shtetl, it was the greatest dream they could imagine.
The title of the chapter in your book about Chicago is: “Can deli return to the Windy City?” Why is it so hard for a deli to make it here?
I think it’s hard for it to make it anywhere. You don’t serve a lot of liquor, you’re working with foods like corned-beef sandwiches and pastrami sandwiches, which are very low margins but take a lot of care and skill—even though it’s simple food—to serve right. Think of the legendary counterman Gino at Manny’s, with the Einstein whiskers: This is a guy who can assemble corned-beef sandwiches and flip plates and knives in the air—it’s hard to just pick some kid up and train him to do that.
You mention in the book that 50 percent of Katz’s patrons are tourists, and on the weekend that goes up to 75 percent. I imagine there’s a similar trend at Manny’s. Is the deli as a tourist destination something worth saving?
I wouldn’t agree with the first part of that. Manny’s gets a good number of tourists, but it’s not a tourist place. You go in there at lunchtime, and it’s all big, brawny guys with mustaches…cops and firemen, union guys, politicians.
But the promotional materials…the shirts?
Yeah, well, because there are now fewer [delis], they really are destination restaurants. And there is a bit of theater to the deli experience, because they need to attract whoever they can. Especially because in a city like Chicago, which lost a lot of people who lived in the downtown in the 1960s after the riots, a delicatessen that was downtown had to attract people to it. You can attract businesspeople at lunch, and you can attract tourists, because those are the ones who are staying downtown. Now that people have come back downtown, then you get places like Eleven City Diner, which caters to regulars a lot, but tourists are a part of it.
You’ve described delis as “welcoming” places, whereas I think some famous delis are known for kind of abusive service—
But it’s a welcome abuse. It’s rare that you’ll find a place with people that are just outright hostile. But they’re not genteel and restrained, and that’s the welcoming thing. It’s not disingenuous, and it’s not, “Welcome to Subway; how can I help you?” They might give you shit for ordering the sandwich on white bread, but they’ll also ask about your family and remember you the next time you come back.
I went to a deli called Perry’s a couple months ago, and they were out of rye bread. If you were in my situation, what would you have done if you really wanted a pastrami sandwich?
Wow. So hold on. Is this a Jewish delicatessen?
No, but they have an incredible pastrami sandwich.
My second choice would be an onion bun. Maybe a challah roll, or a chally, as you guys call it over there. [Ed. note: We do?] And then I would just get a plate of pastrami and eat it with a fork and mustard, which is actually a great way to have it.
I’ll be sure to do that.
Just don’t get anywhere near white bread. Although, I interviewed Mr. T for the book, and Mr. T’s from Chicago originally, and I said, “When you’re in L.A., Mr. T, you eat deli a lot; what do you get?” And he’s like, “I just get a big glass of orange juice and pastrami between four slices of brown bread.” And I was like, “Why do you get brown bread? You know, people usually get it on rye.” And he’s like, “I grew up in the ghetto of Chicago, and all we ever had was rye bread, and I can’t stand the taste of it. And that’s why T don’t like rye.” And I was like, “All right, you are the only person I’m going to allow that exception to.”
Save Chicago delis and listen to David Sax speak at Manny’s (1141 S Jefferson St, 312-939-2855) Thursday 29 at 6pm.