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Save the Deli
Cover of Save the Deli
Save the Deli
In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen
by David Sax
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Part culinary travelogue, part cultural history, Save the Deli is a must-read for anyone whose idea of perfect happiness is tucking into a pastrami on rye with a pickle on the side

Corned beef. Pastrami. Brisket. Matzo balls. Knishes. Mustard and rye. In this book about Jewish delicatessens, about deli's history and characters, its greatest triumphs, spectacular failures, and ultimately the very future of its existence, David Sax goes deep into the world of the Jewish deli. He explores the histories and experiences of the immigrant counterman and kvetching customer; examines the pressures that many delis face; and enjoys the food that is deli's signature.

In New York and Chicago, Florida, L.A., Montreal, Toronto, Paris, and beyond, Sax strives to answer the question, Can Jewish deli thrive, and if so, how? Funny, poignant, and impeccably written, Save the Deli is the story of one man's search to save a defining element of a culture -- and the sandwiches -- he loves.

From the Hardcover edition.

Part culinary travelogue, part cultural history, Save the Deli is a must-read for anyone whose idea of perfect happiness is tucking into a pastrami on rye with a pickle on the side

Corned beef. Pastrami. Brisket. Matzo balls. Knishes. Mustard and rye. In this book about Jewish delicatessens, about deli's history and characters, its greatest triumphs, spectacular failures, and ultimately the very future of its existence, David Sax goes deep into the world of the Jewish deli. He explores the histories and experiences of the immigrant counterman and kvetching customer; examines the pressures that many delis face; and enjoys the food that is deli's signature.

In New York and Chicago, Florida, L.A., Montreal, Toronto, Paris, and beyond, Sax strives to answer the question, Can Jewish deli thrive, and if so, how? Funny, poignant, and impeccably written, Save the Deli is the story of one man's search to save a defining element of a culture -- and the sandwiches -- he loves.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Excerpts-
  • From the book

    Next! Behind the Counter at Katz's Delicatessen8:14 P.M.: Basic Training
    Charlie held out a white kitchen apron and a brand-new red Katz's Delicatessen baseball hat. I tied the apron on and slipped the hat onto my head.

    "Okay," Charlie said, "follow me."

    We walked two-thirds of the way down Katz's massive counter, squeezing into a narrow opening. Charlie called one of the countermen over.

    "Yo John," Charlie said. "This is David. He's going to start cutting tonight." John nodded and looked at me with more than a hint of suspicion. "Just show him how it's done, okay?" John okayed in approval. Charlie looked at me, smiled, and sang the words "Good luck."

    John had no time to waste. "Yo man, here's what you do." He swung his body around 180 degrees, grabbing the hot handle of the steam box. Big as an office desk, the array of large metal steam boxes are the final home for Katz's pastrami and corned beef. As John opened one of the lids, a blast of steam shot out, blanketing our bodies in the perfume of garlic, salt, and sweating meat that had been seasoning countermen here for generations. He pulled his head back for a second. Then he dove in.

    Using a two-pronged carving fork, John sorted through a hot treasure chest of meat, stabbing and flipping until he found a pastrami that caught his eye. After he hauled out the meat, John and I stepped back to the wooden cutting board. Repositioning the pastrami so the leaner tip pointed to his right and the fatter end was directly in front of his belly, John raised his fork and sunk it about two and a half inches from the tip. "Okay man, watch carefully," he said. "You wanna hold your knife on an angle, and use the fork to help control it." Resting the back of the knife's edge against the fork on a 45-degree angle, he drew back his arm and sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt perfect slices of pastrami rhythmically came away.

    John now raised the knife and THWACK came down, splitting the ribbons of pastrami into two even piles. He then delicately slid the blade underneath one half of the meat and lifted it neatly on top of the other half. Grabbing two slices of rye from beneath the counter, John took a wooden spoon out of a bucket of spicy brown mustard and painted the bread. He placed the meat on the rye and closed it, cutting the sandwich in half. He once again slipped the knife beneath and lifted the whole thing onto a waiting plate. John pulled the blade back and voilà, the sandwich rested there perfectly.

    Next, we squeezed by other cutters and grabbed three pickles from two buckets. John lined them up side by side, held them in place with his hand, and with three quick slashes he sliced the pickles in half, tossing them onto another plate. "That's it, man. You got it?" I nodded. John stepped out of the way, raised his hand, and flicked a "come here" wave to the crowd, shouting "Next!" Within seconds customers started to line up in front of me, yelling orders.

    "Katz's has to exist because if it didn't no one else would have any standard by which to be judged."

    Having co-owned Katz's Delicatessen since 1988, Fred Austin seemed to be a tailor-made figurehead for the bad-ass deli. Goateed and bald, he stood well over six feet tall and boasted a substantial girth, which, given his image in the yellowing photos, had been steadily compounding over the years. "You can tell how long a person's worked here by how much weight he's put on," Austin once joked to a reporter. He was raised in the Lower East Side of the 1950s and 60s, and deli was tied into the very fabric of his life. "There were delicatessens literally on every...

About the Author-
  • David Sax is a freelance journalist originally from Toronto. He is a regular contributor to Toronto Life, and most recently New York and Portfolio.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 13, 2009
    “This is a book about Jewish food,” Sax's prologue reminds, “and it would be a shame to read it on an empty stomach.” It's true; just a few chapters in, and you'll find yourself hungry for hot pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup, maybe even ready to try some gribenes
    (chicken skin fried in chicken fat). As freelance writer Sax explains, however, it's getting harder and harder for even the best delicatessens to stay open; the profit margins on sandwiches are atrocious, and young Jewish families tend not to embrace the food the way their ancestors did. Still, Sax has found a few truly outstanding delis, and not just in New York City—joyful moments in this otherwise elegiac travelogue come with the discovery of delicious schmaltz in Colorado, or the legendary smoked meats of Montreal. Along the way, he interviews deli owners, meat cutters and customers, digging deep into local histories wherever he visits. The well-crafted portraits don't string together perfectly, but individual chapters shine—such as the passages on the death and rebirth of Manhattan's Second Avenue Deli or the disappointment of Poland's attempts to reinvigorate a Jewish culture almost obliterated by the Holocaust. A helpful appendix includes addresses of all the delis Sax discusses and then some; readers in the right cities are sure to start planning visits straight away.

  • A.J. Jacobs, author of The Know-it-All and The Year of Living Biblically "David Sax is the MFK Fisher of pickled meats. After Save the Deli, you'll never take a pastrami sandwich for granted again. You'll also be moved by Sax's wonderful portrayal of the folks behind the counters, and their fascinating thoughts on cultural identity, the relentless passage of time -- and, of course, kreplach."
  • Alan Richman, author of Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater "Nobody this young should be so smart or know so much about delicatessens. He may go down in history as a Jewish hero, the man who saved rye bread. The kid knows how to eat and he knows how to write. You can't ask for more than that, although a glass of cream soda is always nice."
  • Jane and Michael Stern, authors of Roadfood "[A] passionate manifesto ... intensely evocative."
  • Michael Wex, author of Just Say Nu "A Bromo-fueled cri de coeur on behalf of the uniquely Ashkenazic food that keeps its devotees ... from going goyish into that good night."
  • Fyvush Finkel, (Yiddish theater legend, actor Picket Fences and Boston Public) "David Sax's book on delicatessens is an important work. The food is an important part of the Jewish culture. We could not have grown up without it. I totally enjoyed our interview and I must say that the book is a great read for anyone, from the culture conscious to the foodies."
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In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen
David Sax
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