Long Live Pastrami: A New Book Celebrates the History of the Deli

Untitled copyLike a towering, multi-level arpeggio of corned beef, pastrami, brisket and turkey with mustard, Thousand Island dressing and coleslaw on pumpernickel, Save the Deli is an awesome congress of many tones. David Sax’s new book plots the history of the delicatessen going back to the Ashkenazi Jews arriving on the Lower East Side, a stirring ode to the edible ecstasy of smoked meat and dill pickles, a eulogy for iconic delis that no longer exist, a lament for all-but-extinct double-baked rye bread and a practical guide to good delis still thriving downtown and around the world. And, as the title suggests, it is a manifesto that celebrates traditional food and foodways and passionately argues that we must save the deli.

Sax worries that when diverse cultures pour into a melting pot, they tend to lose their soul. “The edible is often the last line of defense before total integration,” he writes, arguing that the disappearance of the classic deli (due primarily to New York’s onerous rents) is the loss not only of excellent matzoh ball soup, smoked fish and chopped liver, but of a major touchstone of ethnic identity. Indeed a good, old-fashioned deli “is one of the few places where you can instantly immerse yourself in an organic Jewish experience.” Although Save the Deli ends optimistically with the rebirth of the Second Avenue Deli, it is revealing that its original title was The Death of Deli, which Sax describes as “very much a swan song.” In other words, this book is urgent. Go, eat a pastrami sandwich now!

Jane and Michael Stern host Roadfood.com. Their most recent book is 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late (and the Very Best Places to Eat Them).

Photo courtesy of David Sax