It is one of the real sadnesses in my life that Jewish delis as I knew them are slipping away. (Yes, I have a ridiculously lucky life.)
In New York, the Carnegie and the Stage persist, but they feel like obligatory stops on the tourist trail. I once saw some girls order turkey on white bread with mayo at the Carnegie, to share. It was delivered but with a hefty side of sneer.
In Miami, Wolfie’s has succumbed to real estate pressures and Danny’s in the little town of Surfside has been swept away by a chain seafood house. And to my mind, no pile of food truck tacos or gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches can replace a pure-at-heart bowl of chicken soup with noodles and matzo ball.
In his introduction, Nach Waxman refers to America’s delis as museums of edible artifacts from a particular immigrant community. But unlike most museums, these are not static artifacts static. Americanization, working moms, social and physical mobility changed the deli menu from a little bit of Baltic herring and a little bit of Slavic sausage to a little bit American—adding hot dogs, lemon meringue pie, and Reuben sandwiches.
So I’m delighted that the torch, though guttering, has been picked up by artisan food purveyors who are pursuing spice-cured pastrami and gravlax and long-rising challah. They cooks in this book take the same pride as their fore-fressers did in quality ingredients and the right way of doing things—from a schmear to a celery soda. Okay, they’ve healthied it up, but really that just means you can enjoy it more often.
These recipes, from Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen in Portland, Oregon are designed to be made at home, from setting up some jars of green tomato pickles to sweet little rolled rugelach cookies.
Zuke’s “Diet” Salad may be inspired by the Seinfeld Big Salad, but it reminds me of a much more gemutlicheit version of the diet plate served at the delis, with scoops of chicken and tuna salad on a bed of lettuce and bright red tomato slices. I suppose it was meant for moms or dieting sisters, but I never saw anyone order it. Why would you when there are potato latkes, pastrami, and drum-like layer cakes to be had? But sometimes you (and your liver) need a break and this salad is a good one.
It’s made with sliced hard-boiled egg, and sweet-sour pickled red onions, spiced with cinnamon and clove and with Classic Chicken Salad, which, though simple, really is extraordinarily good. Just simmered chicken flavored with celery and onion and then chopped with mayo, lemon, pepper, and horseradish. The book also offers seasonal variations on the chicken salad, a springtime version with peas and mint or apple, cranberry and walnuts in the winter.
For those nights when you need fortifying, head to the other end of the dietary spectrum with Grandma’s Goulash, a beefy simmer perfumed with pureed roasted red bell peppers and a good dose of Hungarian paprika.
Depending on where you live or your energy level, you can take on the classics—bagels, rye and challah loaves, blintzes, even a backyard barbecue pastrami.
This book proves you don’t have to be Jewish to love deli—and now to cook it at home.