By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
(All graphics are by Ben Nadler from “The Jewish Deli: An Illustrated Guide to the Chosen Food,” published by Chronicle Books and used with the permission of the publisher.)
I remember the last time I ate at a real Jewish deli. It was 1976: my mom and I were traveling to Norwalk, CT, to visit a doctor who offered alternative medical advice. On the way, we stopped for a meal in one of the Catskill towns along Route 17. I don’t remember exactly what I ordered, but it was most likely a tongue sandwich with mustard (in those days, deli food was one of the few times I used mustard as a condiment, rather than ketchup) and would have been especially appreciative of the pickled tomatoes, which were difficult to find in Endwell. Little did I know that after that doctor’s visit, my eating habits would change radically.
I thought about that meal after reading the absolutely delightful “The Jewish Deli: An Illustrated Guide to the Chosen Food” by Ben Nadler (Chronicle Books). To illustrate just how much I liked this book: the first time I opened it, I planned to quickly glance at a few pages. The next thing I knew, I’d read 40 pages. Yes, they are heavily illustrated and some read like a graphic novel, but that’s part of the fun. I mean, how can you resist a section called “Kosher” that is narrated by a chicken? And as for the history: OK, so scholars might disagree with some of Nadler’s opinions, but I’m betting that none of them will make me laugh as much.
In Nadler’s introduction, he notes that his book is not about Jews, but food, although in this case, it’s hard to separate deli food and Jews. Nadler clearly loves the food he writes about: he notes that deli food “is good. Really, really good. It’s fatty, salty, briny, buttery, bright, sweet, smoky, sour, and just about every adjective you could use to describe something delicious. It’s homey and comforting, exciting and weird, luxurious and sloppy. When I bite into a good pastrami sandwich, I feel in my Ashkenazi blood that I am satisfying my most basic human instincts.”
There is an abridged and very funny look at Jewish history from biblical to contemporary times that includes talking bagels and a pig who comments, “excuse me for only needing to chew my food once!” There is a discussion of the difference between a delicatessen and an appetizing store (basically meat vs. milk products). Those who delight in the history of food (yes, I mean me) will love the discussions of how non-Jewish food was adapted by Jews into what is now considered Jewish food. Plus, while there are no recipes, the lists of ingredients and cooking methods are discussed, something perfect for those of us who like to understand the basics (for example, how the different deli meats are made), but who have no desire to ever make them ourselves.
While vegetarians may be shuddering at this onslaught of meat dishes, never fear: there are plenty of deli-related foods that don’t contain meat or fish. The section about bread is great fun (you’ll learn the difference between New York City and Montreal bagels, in addition to discovering how a bialy differs from both of them), as are the ones about kugels, knishes, pickles, blintzes and, yes, even a variety of desserts.
Nagel also interviews owners of 12 contemporary delis, showing how they approach their enterprises in different ways. Most agree that delis have to change with the times, although a few are sticking with their tried-and-true formula. My favorite question? “Is there a menu item that people tend to stay away from that you think is underrated?” The foods in some answers struck me as appealing, but there was at least one whose suggestion might be an acquired taste. (I can’t imagine eating p’tcha, also known as jellied calves’ feet.)
There is only one problem with “The Jewish Deli.” It’ll make you wish there was one in town! It’s difficult to read about all that wonderful food and not be able to order it. Nadler’s book is the perfect gift for the foodie you love or anyone nostalgic for deli food. Well, even if they weren’t nostalgic for deli food before they read the book, they will be by the time they are done!