David Sax has been called "The M.F.K. Fisher of pickled meats" (A.J. Jacobs), and his just-published book, Save The Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was referred to as "a voluptuous mitzvah for schmaltzophiles" (Jane and Michael Stern, authors of Roadfood).
David ate his way across America (and other countries, too), sampling the fare at hundreds of Jewish delicatessens in order to gauge the state of this vanishing cuisine. Of course he made it to South Florida too, his chapter on Miami Beach detailing how as the island transformed from haven of Jewish culture to international paradise it lost its great delis, like Wolfie's, Pumpernick's, and Rascal House. Mr. Sax' manifesto for deli lovers is a call to arms to reclaim kasha, kreplach, kugel, knishes, and kishka -- not to mention real, true, fatty, hand-sliced corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.
Short Order spoke with Sax by phone the day after a "massive" kickoff party for the book at Ben's Kosher Deli in New York City:
Ben's Kosher Deli in Boca Raton is your favorite deli down here in South Florida, right?
Yeah, yeah, it's a great deli. "The chain with heart", I like to call it.
But overall you weren't very impressed with South Florida delicatessens.
I didn't think they were bad, it's just that I expected to be blown away. And while there is a lot of good deli, and a lot of delis numerically, there was nothing that was (pauses)...nothing that was setting any standards.
Was there anything different about our delis?
There are a lot of bagel delis, places that serve both. I thought that
was a detriment because it's hard to make bagels, and it's also hard to
do deli, so to try to do both you're going to sacrifice one thing. I
don't know of any successful bagel bakeries and delis anywhere else,
but in South Florida there are so many of them. 3G's Deli (Delray
Beach) is one that I was really impressed with.
Potato knish: Mustard or no mustard?
Mustard. Otherwise it's just mashed potato.
Best pastrami sandwich in America?
Langer's Delicatessen in Los Angeles. (as a side note, Nora Ephron agrees)
Who or what is most responsible for killing the great delis of America?
It's a bunch of different factors. Assimilation, health trends, diet
trends like Atkins -- damn you, Atkins! Really though, it's all sorts
of reasons. In South Florida you can point to Jerry's (Famous Deli) and
say, 'All right, this is a specific case where a guy came in and killed
off this great institution (Rascal House) because of greed. Pure,
How many young Jews eat stuffed derma or kasha varnishkas?
Obviously not as many as the alta cockas (yiddish for old folks), but in the same sense not an insignificant number.
I rarely can find sour pickles anymore -- the delis only serve half-sour. Why is that?
I think it's kind of a regional thing. I'm from Canada, where all we
ever knew was sour. In New York the full sour is tougher to find, in
Los Angeles and Chicago they really only do half-sour.
What's an appropriate punishment for those who serve wrap sandwiches in their delicatessen?
Banishment. Forty years in the desert.
David will be discussing the dire straits of Jewish delicatessens at
Books & Books in Coral Gables at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 1.
After watching him speak you can go grab a great deli sandwich in the
Gables at, um....
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