No one expects most Jewish delis to be kosher anymore.
But when you pull Hebrew National salami and Dr. Brown’s soda from the menu — and downsize the iconic, mile-high corned beef sandwich — can you still claim to be a guardian of the great Jewish deli tradition?
Even at Saul’s Deli, a Berkeley, Calif., eatery where the pastrami is grass-fed, the pickles local and Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse is just down the street, sustainably farmed and ethically raised food can be a hard sell to customers craving Jewish comfort food.
So last month, the deli’s co-owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt convened a “Referendum on the Jewish Deli,” a panel discussion that included “Omnivore’s Dilemma” author and sustainable foods movement superstar Michael Pollan, a frequent Saul’s customer.
The oversized Jewish deli sandwich, panelists argued (before a live audience of more than 250), is actually a relatively new tradition dating back to the 1950s when meat became plentiful and cheap.
“There’s two traditions,” Pollan said. “The postwar Cadillac sandwich and the earlier, poorer tradition of using every little bit of the bird. You pick and choose from traditions and construct something new.”
Even at standard bearers like Katz’s and Second Avenue Deli (and authentic Jewish delis are an endangered species), the meat has changed since the days Jews wax nostalgic about.
“What seems unchanging has in fact been revolutionized,” by the industrialization of meat production, Pollan said. “And a lot of people didn’t notice it. But this is not what was on the menu at the deli in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Meat was produced in a very different way 50 years ago.”
Take kosher salami, for example. Levitt said Saul’s stopped serving Hebrew National two months ago when they “finally realized that ConAgra [the food conglomerate which has been criticized for its environmental, labor and health practices] owns Hebrew National.”
“All the names we associate with Jewish deli must-haves are not the old families that ran them any more,” Levitt said. “These names have been sold and owned by industrial food corporations.”
Such as Dr. Brown’s, which, according to Saul’s, is now owned by Dr. Pepper/Seven Up and sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Saul’s replaced the familiar cans with its own small-batch sodas, which range in flavor from celery and ginger ale to strawberry and Meyer lemon.
Ultimately, said the panelists, even Jewish delis have to encourage their customers to cut back on meat.
“Those very large iconic sandwiches are killing the deli,” Levitt said, noting that deli customers expect the same amount of meat served in a steakhouse entrée, but “they only want to pay $10 for it and they don’t drink a bottle of wine with it. You can’t make money selling towering pastrami sandwiches.”
Acknowledging that encouraging less meat might sound strange coming from a “professional pastrami hawker” like herself, Adelman nonetheless seemed optimistic her customers would buy into the socially conscious approach to deli-ing.
“The Jewish people have been kind of scrappy and progressive,” she said. “We hunger for something more than just pastrami. We hunger for comfort and meaning.”
To see a video of the “Referendum on the Jewish Deli” go to www.saulsdeli.com (link is in the bottom left corner).