ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
The other day, deep in Rego Park, Queens in New York City, Stanley Moscowitz and Walter Israel sat down at a Formica table for lunch.
Unidentified Man: Chopped liver.
Unidentified Woman: Okay. Liver and potato?
Mr. MOSCOWITZ: Yeah.
SIEGEL: Moscowitz, who's 53 and grew up in nearby Forest Hills, ordered first.
Mr. MOSCOWITZ: Matzo ball, tip of the tongue, roast beef, rye, Russian, onions. Dr. Brown's diet cherry.
SIEGEL: We are at Ben's Best Kosher Deli on Queens Boulevard.
Mr. WALTER ISRAEL: Pastrami, rye bread, black cherry.
SIEGEL: That's Walter Israel. His son Jason was also there.
Mr. W. ISRAEL: Jase, you know what you're having?
Mr. JASON ISRAEL: Hot pastrami. White bread.
SIEGEL: Pastrami on white bread. In his defense, I should add that Jason did not ask for mayonnaise. But this combination - pastrami on white - enjoys a certain status as the epitome of faux pas in Jewish delicatessen shtick. David Sax, the writer who introduced me to Ben's Best and who is on a mission to save and celebrate the Jewish delicatessen, quotes the late comedian Milton Berle.
Mr. DAVID SAX (Writer): Anytime someone orders a pastrami sandwich on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.
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Mr. SAX: So maybe it wasn't the cholesterol that was killing everyone. It was other people ordering pastrami on white with mayo. 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 do. They're there for your own good.
This is a meat that's so intensely flavored with such a long and intricate preparation, that to dilute it with anything other than mustard and rye bread is to take away from it. Lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise don't belong on it because it detracts from all the sensations that this meat is going to give you.
SIEGEL: What about a club roll?
Mr. SAX: There - you know, a club roll is sort of that borderline of acceptability. An onion bun might be, as well. You could get away with that possibly. I think that's it. Those are sort of the borders. You're really pushing the edges there.
SIEGEL: David Sax is a 30-year-old writer who grew up in Toronto eating food from Yitz's Deli and hearing stories about the Jewish delis his parents knew growing up in Montreal. Speaking of the Milton Berle jokes, Sax begins his new book "Save the Deli" with another rumination on delicatessen food and human mortality. The story of how Grandpa Sam Sax met his untimely end.
Mr. SAX: Legend has it, because 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 know, 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, a famous delicatessen and he got a (unintelligible).
SIEGEL: Now in the - under the new language regime.
Mr. SAX: Exactly. And he got a sandwich piled high - a smoked meat sandwich piled high with speck, which they no longer make, which was the fat cut from the top of the brisket, the pickled fat, dusted in paprika and then grilled and then re-sliced. So it was a sandwich essentially of pure fat. And he died about a day or two later. I mean, you know, this sandwich did him in, but he died in a mustard-soaked blaze of glory.
SIEGEL: Moral of the story, it ain't health food we're talking about.
Mr. SAX: It ain't health food, but it's not poison either.
SIEGEL: David Sax has traveled across North America in search of the best examples of that endangered culinary species: the Jewish delicatessen.
Mr. SAX: 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. 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.
SIEGEL: 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, no ham sandwiches here, no Reuben sandwiches either. They don't mix meat with dairy.
David Sax says this is one of the last kosher delis in the borough of Queens. And as we squeeze 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.
Mr. SAX: Here we're in the holy of the holies. This is the meat counter. So, we have dried salami, which is salami that's been hung to dry, kosher salami, a meatloaf, roast turkey breast, roast beef, pickled tongue, which is harder and harder to find these days. Is that rolled beef? Do you guys have rolled beef today? Oh my God, okay, we're in for a huge treat.
So, rolled beef is one of these things that was once ubiquitous at delicatessens all over New York. It's basically the (unintelligible) - the same kind of pastrami but they butterfly it. They spice it like a pastrami but they roll it up and tie it with twine, smoke it and then slice it thin and cold. It's the rare truffle of the Jewish deli meat world. We're all in...
Mr. JAY PARKER (Owner, Ben's Best Kosher Deli): So, when somebody comes in and orders it, we know, they know. That's like the secret deli handshake.
SIEGEL: That's Jay Parker, who owns the deli. He took it over from his father, Ben, after a career selling municipal bonds. It's a small place, 15 tables with a big takeout tray. Jay Parker says in a good week he sells more than 800 pounds of pastrami. We feasted on some of it and it was delicious. So is the not-too-hard and not-too-soft matzo ball and the chicken noodle soup, the silken slices of tongue and the much anticipated rolled beef. Deli food certainly enjoys a celebrated past. But I asked Jay Parker, does he see a future for it?
Mr. PARKER: That's a great question. I don't have an answer to that. I usually ask people that. I think, you know, we all talk about pastrami, we all talk about corned beef, we all talk about these items, but they've never become part of the social fabric. You go to any neighborhood, you can find an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Thai restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, sushi bars, but that's an interesting question. I don't have an answer for you, but I think about it every day.
SIEGEL: And for David Sax, this deli, like other survivors in cities all over the country, is something more than a restaurant and something more than just a cause for nostalgia.
Mr. SAX: It's the repository of this edible culture in the city where this culture really grew up.
SIEGEL: David Sax. His book is called "Save the Deli." And he thought that I contributed a fairly apt slogan for his very entertaining one man crusade: a world without heartburn is a world without heart.
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SIEGEL: A few days ago, we asked you to send us stories about your favorite delicatessen, and we received lots of them. Stories of delis still in existence and others long shuttered, and we've collected then at our Web site npr.org.