Sunday, February 17, 2013

Save the Deli

So, the good news is: I’m officially back in the kitchen. Raphaël apparently enjoys sitting in his bouncy chair on the floor and watching me whisk things and spill stuff (obviously, I don’t put him directly under the counter), so I’ve been able to cook relatively freely. The less good news is: nothing I’ve made so far is especially blog worthy. Baby steps, people, baby steps (pun intended).

So, in the meantime, let’s talk books. I’ve never been happier to be an avid reader than these past few months: it’s one of the few hobbies I could still indulge in when I was spending most of the day nursing the baby. I can only watch so much TV, especially daytime TV. Knitting or crochet was out of the question, as were writing and drawing. Anything that required two relatively mobile arms was off-limits, basically. I could still surf the Web on my iPhone, but typing anything longer than an email just wasn’t worth the trouble (and no, I don’t own a tablet). Eventually, I did figure out how to play video games while nursing, and life got a whole lot better (Oh, don’t look at me like that. Yes, breastfeeding is a beautiful experience and a precious time between mother and baby – but sometimes, you just have to play Assassin’s Creed.).

But for the most part, I read. Nothing too complicated, as the hormones and the lack of sleep were clouding my brain. Still, I have a few food-related books piled up. The first is David Sax’s Save the Deli (which I think I actually read even before I was pregnant, so it’s high time I posted about it).

My Dad has a story about the time we first moved to New York, when I was five years old. We hadn’t found an apartment yet and lived in a hotel room for the first few weeks. One day, when my Dad came home from work, I greeted him excitedly: “Daddy, daddy, we discovered something delicious!” It turns out I was referring to the deli sandwiches my Mom and I had had for lunch. Apparently, I had been very impressed by the fact that they were made right in front of you.

But it would be years and years before I found out that there are delis, and then there are delis. In my story, the deli in question was most probably a small grocery store with a take-out counter. But this isn’t the kind of deli David Sax writes about. (On a side note, though, Ben Ryder Howe does write about this particular type of deli in My Korean Deli. It isn’t really a food book, so I won’t write a whole post about it, but it’s a funny, self-deprecating tale about the grocery-deli business.)

David Sax’s book is all about the Jewish delicatessen. The author has not only crossed the United States and Canada, but even went to Europe, to personally try out every renowned deli he could find. Now that’s dedication! The book chronicles his travels and impressions, and paints a picture of the deli, past, present and future.

In all honesty, it’s been several months since I’ve read the book, so my memories are a bit fuzzy. I do remember it being a somewhat repetitive read toward the end: after all, how many times can you read about the beauty of pastrami sandwiches and the deliciousness of knishes before you get a little saturated? It’s truly amazing that Sax himself manages not to grow blasé over time. Then again, the man is truly passionate about deli cuisine.

What I do remember is the main message, which is implicit in the title: the Jewish delicatessen is in trouble – and thus in need of saving. The reasons are multiple: a waning interest in the traditional food they serve, soaring rents, high food costs and low profits. The profit margin on a pastrami sandwich is surprisingly low, even more so in places where they pile on up to a pound of meat, as some famed delis in New York City do.

Although delicatessen are arguably most associated with New York, Sax’s travels have led him to find quality delis all over North America – including, of course, our very own Montreal. Anyone who lives here knows that we have our own version of pastrami: smoked meat. The difference, as far as I can tell, lies in the spice mixture (and most likely a bunch of other secrets that I’m not privy to). Of course, no book about the deli would be complete without mentioning Schwartz’s, Montreal’s landmark deli. Sax speaks very highly of Montreal delis in general, and of Schwartz’s in particular, writing: “If the deli is to be saved, a large part of the solution lies in the mysterious Montreal smoked meat.”

Here’s where I have to confess something: despite having lived in Montreal for fourteen years, and having spent many of those years living a mere five minutes from Schwartz’s, I’ve only eaten there once. Somehow, the everlasting queue in front of the place (even in the middle of sweltering summer) kept discouraging me. Not only that, but I only eat smoked meat about once a year, when Laurent’s colleagues throw their annual Smoked Meat and Beer party. Then again, I’m a bad Montrealer in so many ways: I’ve only eaten poutine once, I’ve never been to Cirque du Soleil, I’ve never gone to see the Habs play… If it’s any consolation, I’m a pretty terrible Belgian, too (though not when it comes to the food: Belgian food is awesome).

Also, during all the time I’ve spent in New York, between living there and visiting my parents, I’ve only been to a deli once: during my honeymoon. And that was after having read Sax’s book. So you may be wondering why I read this book in the first place. Well, precisely because I didn’t know all that much about delis. And Sax’s book was nothing if not informative and well researched – and quite amusing at times, despite the occasional redundancies.

So let me finish by telling you about my meagre deli experience. The first and only time I went to Schwartz’s, with another novice friend, we were under the protection of another friend who happened to be an expert. He taught us how to order, to choose between lean, regular, fat, and extra-fat, and was impressed when we went for fat. It was good, and satisfying, but I didn’t hanker for it after; possibly because I eat a lot of meats and stews at home.

When Laurent and I honeymooned in New York in 2011, we happened to stay in a hotel that was close to two landmark delis: the Stage, and the Carnegie, which were linked in perpetual rivalry. With Sax’s descriptions of warm, schmaltzy chicken soup and melting pastrami still fresh in my mind, I insisted we try one or the other. There was a long queue in front of the Carnegie, so we went to the Stage, (where a queue formed soon after we arrived).

Our elderly waiter was terrifyingly grouchy. Seriously, he scared me. Scared me so much I practically apologized to him when I pointed out he’d forgotten to bring us the water we’d requested. I forced myself to polish off my matzo ball chicken soup, because I was afraid he would yell at me if I didn’t. Instead, his reaction upon picking up my empty bowl was one of surprise (dare I say admiration?) – which leads me to believe that people don’t typically chow down that entire giant matzo ball.

Then came the sandwiches. And boy did they ever live up to Sax’s description: thick slices of meat piled so high the rye bread couldn’t even hope to contain them, and the whole thing eventually crumbled between our greasy fingers. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, but it filled us up for the entire day. Again, not something I could see myself eating on a regular basis.

So, despite Sax’s engaging and enthusiastic writing, I still feel like I’ve been on the outside of deli culture looking in. The book did give me better insight on its history, though, and accompanying respect. Maybe I should get back in touch with that old friend who took me to Schwartz’s, get more of an insider’s perspective. Despite my lack of personal experience with delis, I was still saddened to learn that the Stage closed at the end of 2012. It looks like Sax’s claim that the deli needs to be saved still stands.


  1. I have been to Carnegie Deli, too! INCREDIBLE>
    Scwartz's in Montreal is still the ultimate in my humble opinion.

  2. I love how the others hints that Montreal could save delis everywhere ha ha. I live my occasional smoke meat but no patience for the line a Schwarts. Breast feeding and video games, good one :-)

  3. If it comes to pass it will be a shame, but I suspect there will be survivors to remind us of what once was. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary