He ate blintzes in Brooklyn. He ate ox tongue in London. In Austin, he ate tacos stuffed with salami, salsa, scrambled eggs, and potato-pancake shards. Determined to champion the cuisine he'd grown up loving, Canadian journalist David Sax undertook a six-nation tasting tour. He'll talk about the resulting book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen, at Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen (1475 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) on Saturday, October 24.
When friends questioned his decision to devote a whole chapter to Bay Area delis, Sax retorted that this is a culinary capital, despite the fact that "until very recently, San Francisco was a dying deli town. ... No one had anything good to say about the deli scene in the Bay Area for years." This is changing, with a new interest in sustainably sourced meats and other products; but Sax remembers low points such as when Vietnamese owners acquired the historic Brother's Manhattan Deli in San Francisco and added pho to its menu.
The flipside are those countless delis that keep their identities intact by continuing to sell only traditional dishes, no matter who cooks and serves them.
"The best Jewish-deli waiters in New York City are Arab and Chinese and Turkish," Sax asserts. Savoring knishes one day in a Scottsdale, Arizona deli whose co-owner and staff are Hispanic, he overheard customers complaining about the dearth of Jewish countermen: "That doesn't fucking matter anymore," Sax raged, remembering this. "The food is the core: kosher food, ideally, but at least Eastern European Ashkenazi food — and that's why a Jewish deli owned by Jews that serves lobster is not a Jewish deli, but a deli owned by Greek Orthodox Greeks that sells flanken and gefilte fish is."
Delis represent a universal sense of refuge, Sax believes: "Each of the delicatessens I visited in New York had stories from the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, when regular customers came by in droves. The world they'd known was literally tumbling down, and their first reaction was to seek out the comforting certainty of matzo-ball soup and cabbage rolls."
Fraught with such profound observations, his saga was bittersweet: While once an urban mainstay, his beloved deli food has fallen into disfavor with a public that deems it fattening and old hat. Being the classic cuisine of a foreign culture fails to win it extra points, Sax says, because "Jewish-deli food is ethnic food that is now no longer really seen as ethnic food. It's been in America for over a century, and Jews are no longer seen as immigrants. People feel that they know what a matzo ball is and what a pastrami sandwich is. There's none of that sense of discovery like when you can tell your friends, 'We just found a great Samoan place.'"
But matzo balls and pastrami "are only part of the picture," Sax insists, "because there's so much more to Ashkenazi cuisine." In Paris, he tasted salmon roe, chestnut salami, and chopped-liver-stuffed goose neck: Such marvels, he says, "represent the great untouched promise of what the Bay Area could have." 4 p.m., free. SaulsDeli.com
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