A Mission To Save Real Jewish Delis, A Dying Breed
The other day, deep in Rego Park, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, Stanley Moscowitz and Walter Israel sat down at a Formica table for lunch at Ben's Best Kosher Deli on Queens Boulevard.
Moscowitz, who's 53 and grew up in nearby Forest Hills, ordered first: matzo ball, tip of the tongue, roast beef, rye, Russian, onions and Dr. Brown's diet cherry drink.
Israel ordered pastrami on rye bread. His son Jason ordered pastrami on white. In his defense, Jason did not ask for mayonnaise, but the combination of pastrami and white bread enjoys a certain status as the epitome of faux pas in Jewish delicatessen shtick.
Writer David Sax, who has a new book called Save the Deli, introduced NPR's Robert Siegel to Ben's Best. Sax is on a mission to save and celebrate the Jewish delicatessen. Quoting the late comedian Milton Berle, Sax says, "Anytime someone orders a pastrami sandwich on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.
"So maybe it wasn't the cholesterol that was killing everyone. It was other people ordering pastrami on white with mayo," he tells Siegel. "There are certain rules that you should follow in a delicatessen. And they're not there to be strict, and they're not there to dictate what you should do. They're there for your own good. This is meat with such intense flavor with such a long, intricate preparation, that to dilute it with anything other than mustard and rye bread is to take away from it."
In Search Of An Endangered Culinary Species
Sax, 30, grew up in Toronto eating food from Yitz's Deli and hearing stories about the Jewish delis his parents knew growing up in Montreal. He begins his new book with a rumination on delicatessen food and human mortality: the story of how his grandpa Sam Sax met his untimely end.
"Legend has it, 'cause this happened two years before I was born, that my grandfather had been treated for angina, and he was supposedly released from the hospital with a stern warning from the doctor saying, 'You really have to live better. You can't smoke, you can't eat these fatty foods.' And so to celebrate his release, he went to Schwartz's Delicatessen in Montreal, and he got a sandwich piled high with speck, which they no longer make, which was the pickled fat cut from the top of the brisket, dusted in paprika and then grilled and then resliced. So it was a sandwich essentially of pure fat. He died about a day or two later," Sax says. "The sandwich did him in, but he died in a mustard-soaked blaze of glory. It ain't health food, but it's not poison, either."
Sax has traveled across North America in search of the best examples of that endangered culinary species.
"A Jewish deli should specialize in, first and foremost, Yiddish foods — the foods of the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. So if it's a place that specializes in pizza or chicken wings or diner food, and then does a corned beef sandwich on the side, it's not a Jewish delicatessen," he says. "There are many places that serve corned beef and pastrami sandwiches — from Subway to the supermarket — and they don't factor into this at all."
Ben's Best factors into this very centrally. It is a rare surviving example of a once thriving breed: the neighborhood deli. Tourists who go to New York's Times Square may hit the Carnegie Deli and the Stage Deli. But they don't schlep out to Rego Park in Queens.
Ben's Best is also a kosher deli, which means no ham sandwiches, no Reuben sandwiches. It doesn't mix meat with dairy.
One Of The Last Kosher Delis
Sax says this is one of the last kosher delis in Queens. As he squeezes in with the countermen who are busy slicing and wrapping lunches, Sax talks about the matzo ball soup and the stuffed cabbage. He points out the pickles and knishes, like a docent in a museum, or a jeweler huddling over a display case. He calls the counter the "holy of the holies" — and points out the dried salami, kosher salami, meatloaf, roast turkey breast, roast beef, pickled tongue.
When he discovers Ben's is serving rolled beef, Sax gets excited. "It's the rare truffle of the Jewish meat," he says.
"That's like the secret deli handshake," says Jay Parker, who owns the deli.
Parker took over from his father, Ben, after a career selling municipal bonds. It's a small place with 15 tables and a big takeout trade. Parker says that in a good week, he sells more than 800 pounds of pastrami.
Deli food certainly enjoys a celebrated past. But does Parker see a future for it?
"That's a great question, but I don't have an answer for that. I usually ask people that. I say, 'We all talk about pastrami, we all talk about corned beef, we all talk about these items, but they never become part of the social fabric," he says. "You go to any neighborhood; you can find a Thai restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, Mexican restaurant, sushi bars. I don't have an answer, but I think about it every day."
And for Sax, this deli — like other survivors in cities all over the country — is something more than a restaurant and more than just a cause for nostalgia.
"It's the repository of this edible culture in this city where this culture really grew up."
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