A Mission To Save Real Jewish Delis, A Dying Breed

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    Third-generation owner Jay Parker runs Ben's Best, one of the last kosher delis in the New York borough of Queens.
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    Parker says he sells more than 800 pounds of pastrami in a good week.
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    Authentic Jewish delis are disappearing, but why? After eating a turkey sandwich and fries, Ben's Best regular Marsha Newman offers, "Because if we ate like this every day we'd all be dead. ... I grew up in Brooklyn, and I remember every Saturday night my whole family would order a round of hot dogs before the corned beef sandwiches came. Can you imagine that now?"
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    Ben's Best has been serving up matzo ball soup since it opened in 1945.
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    Not to be found at Subway: sliced stuffed derma, or kishke. This traditional dish is made of roasted cow intestines stuffed with a seasoned filling of beef fat and matzo meal.
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    The stuffed cabbage hungroise is made from Parker's grandmother's recipe. "Good thing she was a good cook," he says, "or I'd be in trouble."
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    A hot pastrami and corned beef combo sandwich and a side of coleslaw. Ben's Best sandwiches contain more than 10 ounces of meat.
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    Neighborhood delis such as Ben's Best are an endangered species, says David Sax, who wrote the new book Save The Deli.
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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.

David Sax i i

David Sax has a new book called Save the Deli. He's made it his mission to preserve and celebrate authentic delis across North America. Christopher Farber hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Farber
David Sax

David Sax has a new book called Save the Deli. He's made it his mission to preserve and celebrate authentic delis across North America.

Christopher Farber

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."

Freddie Loeser of Loeser's Deli CUSTOM i i

Loeser's Deli is the last kosher deli in the Bronx, according to owner Freddie Loeser. Asked why he thinks they are disappearing, he offers, "Because no one wants to work that hard. The profit isn't that great." Greg Miller for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Miller for NPR
Freddie Loeser of Loeser's Deli CUSTOM

Loeser's Deli is the last kosher deli in the Bronx, according to owner Freddie Loeser. Asked why he thinks they are disappearing, he offers, "Because no one wants to work that hard. The profit isn't that great."

Greg Miller for NPR

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.

Need to learn the lingo? In Save the Deli, David Sax has written a glossary of terms to help people get around an authentic Jewish deli.

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."

From 'Save The Deli': A Glossary Of Jewish Deli Food

Soup (Go on, make it a meal)

Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls (a.k.a. kneidelach): The essence of all Yiddish life. Matzo balls are made from matzo flour, schmaltz, and seltzer. Can be either floaters, sinkers, or the rare, perfect mix. Your mother's are always the best, and your mother-in-law's are always the worst.

Mishmosh: Chicken soup fully loaded with matzo balls, kreplach, noodles, rice, chicken, and vegetables.

Cabbage Borscht: Some brisket, some cabbage, some beets, a little tomato juice ... dinner for a month.

Berditchev Soup: Rare Polish vegetable soup with honey, cloves, and spices ... think apple cider meets Campbell's. Served in vaguely anti-Semitic Krakow restaurants.

Mushroom Barley Soup: Rib-sticking soup, often made with beef stock.

Forshpeis (Appetizers)

Knishes: Baked or fried pockets of dough, filled with potato, kasha, spinach, and sometimes meat scraps from the deli. Served with gravy or from New York vendor carts.

Kishke (a.k.a. Stuffed Derma): Beef intestine stuffed with chicken schmaltz, matzo meal, and the traces of what were once vegetables. Smothered in gravy to reach every last artery.

Kreplach: Little dumplings filled with minced beef and onion, fried or boiled and served with caramelized onions or added to soup.

Kasha Varnishkes: Buckwheat grains and onions sauteed in schmaltz and tossed with bowtie pasta. Served with gravy if you want it to taste like anything.

Tzimmes: Stewed carrots with prunes, honey, raisins, and enough sugar to kill a horse.

Hush Puppies: Hot dog wrapped in a potato knish. Like a pig in a blanket, but somehow puppies are more kosher than pigs.

Gribenes: Chicken skins fried in fat until they crackle. Jewish pork rinds.

Chopped Liver: Fried chicken (or beef) livers, chopped with eggs and fried onions. Loved by babies, despised by kids, rediscovered during pregnancy.

Schmaltz: Fat, most often chicken fat, rendered during the making of soup, cooled, and used for cooking, flavoring, or as an aphrodisiac to attract Jewish men.

P'tcha: Calves' feet and garlic boiled and then cooled into a jelly, set in a mold and sliced. What's not to love?

Gefilte Fish: Minced whitefish poached into a ball. Served with beet sweetened horseradish (chrain).

Coleslaw: Chopped cabbage, vinegar, sugar, spices and for some (ugh) mayonnaise.

Latkes: Fried potato pancakes traditionally eaten at Hanukah. Served with applesauce and all too often a hockey stick.

Deli Meats (The Holy of Holies)

Pastrami: Spiced, cured, smoked navel of beef. The pride of New York, though L.A. does it well too.

Corned Beef/Salt Beef: Pickled and boiled brisket of beef. Good cop to pastrami's bad cop. Best in the Midwest.

Salami: A sausage of minced beef trimmings, spices, fat, and enough salt to melt ice. Served cold, grilled, or fried with eggs.

Karnatzel: Romanian-inspired salami the width of a nickel. Only available in Montreal and best when hung to dry for a week or so.

Pickled Tongue: Like corned beef but with a big cow's tongue. An edible French kiss.

Rolled Beef: A navel butterflied, rolled, tied with string, then cured and smoked like pastrami and sliced paper-thin and cold. Carried by a handful of delis in New York on elusive days.

Baby Beef: Pickled and lightly smoked veal brisket, found only in Toronto. Disappearing rapidly.

Montreal Smoked Meat: Romanian-style spiced, cured, and smoked brisket. The best deli meat you've never eaten.

Roast Brisket: Simple oven-braised brisket. Bland but quite delicate.

Stuffed Chicken: Montreal specialty of minced chicken baloney. Made too often with pork!

Roast/Smoked Turkey: Why even bother?

Kosher Hot Dog: Because kosher-style hot dogs just won't do.

Knoblewurst: Large garlic sausage, eaten hot off the griddle.

Speck: Paprika-dusted, twice-smoked slices of pickled fat from a brisket. Deadly to Saxes.

Excerpted from Save the Deli by David Sax copyright 2009 by David Sax. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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