Who guards the culinary heritage of a culture? Where does authenticity reside, and who decides what it is? Can traditional foods change with the times, and if they do, are they still traditional? Can handmade salami made from grass-fed beef still call up memories of Grandma's Saturday-morning scrambled eggs and salami? In this age of massive multinational conglomerates, does brand loyalty mean anything anymore?
What's better-- the Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray tonic in the bottle you remember Grandpa drinking, now with high-fructose corn syrup included, or homemade celery soda infused with real celery seed, with less sugar and no packaging? How much do we pay-- in food miles, in feedlots, in calories-- for nostalgia?
All these questions, and more, were in the air at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in early February, as an overflow crowd squeezed into the main auditorium for a panel discussion on "Referendum on The Deli Menu" (Can the Jewish Deli be sustainable?) sponsored by Saul's. Saul's, for those of you born without cravings for matzoh ball soup, is Berkeley's big, busy, much-loved Jewish deli. But ever since Karen Adelman and her husband Peter Levitt bought the deli in 1995, they've had what they call "a stealthy, secret mission" operating alongside their dedication to borscht and blintzes, corned beef and chicken in a pot. Their secret? A desire to pull the deli in line with contemporary attitudes about food and consumption, rather than letting it ossify like gefilte fish left too long in the fridge.
To this end, towering sandwiches were slimmed down, no longer stacked with jaw-defying stacks of meat. Meats became sustainably ranched, grass-fed when possible. Vegetables started to come from local farms. Corn-syruped drinks were out; housemade sodas were in. Most recently, salami was dropped from the menu; Hebrew National, the only widely available brand of all-beef salami, is now owned by giant Con Agra.
This being Berkeley, you'd think pasture-raised chicken soup would earn nothing but mazel tovs. But not everyone, it seemed, wanted consciousness-raising alongside their blintzes and brisket. There was pushback from some customers, and an overall question: How much could a deli change and still be a deli?
Having heard the phrase "2 Jews, 3 opinions" tossed around by my opinionated, argue-for-the-sake-of-it relatives all my life, I was ready for some Talmudic-level conflict, some heated words exchanged in the interest of radical change vs. How Bubbe Did It.
Alas, though, everyone on the panel agreed on nearly everything. Nostalgia is no excuse for a lack of conscience; if you care about eating locally, organically, sustainably and/or humanely at home, why should a Jewish deli give you a free pass to wallow in feedlot beef or syrupy soda?
Said Peter, "We started with not wanting to sell meat we wouldn't eat. We want to drag the deli out of the museum, let it breathe with the seasons for a change." Right now, his challenge is corned beef: the grass-fed beef from local Marin Sun Farms, delicious as it is, isn't holding up to the 2- to 3-week brining process. It's been coming out dry and crumbly, probably due to being more muscled and less fatty that typical feedlot beef.
And then there's the menu problem: Saul's, like most delis, has a huge menu. There's the everyday menu, an equally long, but more international, seasonally-inspired specials menu, and then the "secret" menu of the more hard-core, Old World items--flanken, kishkes, things made with schmaltz and braised in gravy. Peter would like to see the menu shortened and made more manageable (and cost-effective); if that means no cold beet borscht in winter, so be it.
Says Karen, "I think we should be leading, not just reacting. We're hungry for meaning and community, along with comfort food. We need to connect with our future as well as our past. I promise, no one will leave hungry!"
Of course, even in Berkeley, there's room to toe more than one party line. If this were New York City, or Los Angeles, where deli culture, while battered, is still alive, one deli's decision to nix the salami would hardly generate SRO crowds at the 92nd St Y. But delis are few in the Bay Area, and so Saul's clientele takes any changes personally . But if there are Hebrew National fans and lox diehards out there, they're keeping quiet; the crowd claps and nods along with just about everything Pollan, Rosenthal, and Friend present, even recoiling a little in genteel horror at brightly colored slides of jaw-defying pastrami sandwiches teetering higher than Lady Gaga's heels. Those massive sandwiches, long the symbol of post-war abundance, a meaty slap in the face to immigrant privation, are no longer sustainable; as Peter points out, there's no way to provide that much meat, particularly if it's good, humanely raised meat, at a price regular customers can bear. "Those huge sandwiches are killing the deli. You can't make money selling 12 oz of meat for $10 or $15. At a steakhouse, you'd pay $30 or $40 for that much meat, and you'd buy a bottle of wine." Instead, Karen and Peter want to offer their customers alternatives that taste good, with a little patient explanation to help it along. Already, the menu emphasizes smoked trout (farmed) over overfished salmon, and more and more Mediterranean inspired salads and vegetable dishes to go along with the potato pancakes and cheesecake.
Pollan, for one, sees the democratization of the food movement as a very good thing. "Getting sustainable food into delis, taquerias, cheaper places, that's great because it makes it more accessible to everyone." Agrees Friend, "We vote with our dollars every day."
If the deli is our secular synagogue, as Pollan muses, clearly this one is reform, maybe even reconstructionist. So fizz up an egg cream or raise a glass of borscht, and toast the new deli.