Some years ago when my son Max was only 7 or 8, a friend returned from Montreal bearing a brisket from Schwartz's, and we promptly steamed it for lunch. My son did not remember having eaten the stuff before and finished his sandwich in a flash, then he looked at me wide-eyed and - addressing my career for the first time - asked: "You write about food, right? Why don't you write about this?"
I did not explain at the time that I had done so already, but I can certainly tell him now that there is no pressing need to do so again. For the subject that was then already well covered has now - with the publication of Save the Deli, by David Sax - been all but put to rest.
Sax is a food writer who lives in New York, hails from Toronto and developed his obsessive interest in the Jewish delicatessen during his university days in Montreal. Appreciation for the food led to a concern that the deli, as we now know and love it, was a phenomenon on its way out, a dying breed - or, as he puts it, "Jewish delicatessens are disappearing faster than chicken fingers at a bar mitzvah buffet."
His quest to find out why begins naturally enough in New York, which in the 1930s was home to something close to 2,000 delis, but is today serviced by only a few dozen.
The first and worst blow to the local deli was the advent of the supermarket, which by the 1950s was already cutting into their business with jars of Manischewitz gefilte fish and pre-sliced preserved meats. Meanwhile, an upwardly mobile Jewish class had begun quitting the old boroughs for the suburbs, and in the process were abandoning their old delis to an environment of alarming economic decline. Those that survived until the turnaround in the 1990s were rewarded with unmanageable, soaring rents; or, in the case of the deli owners who owned their buildings, real-estate values too elevated to justify the businesses they housed. Intermarriage meant a shrinking clientele. The supersized sandwich shrank profit margins still further. And so on.
The most interesting and entertaining part of the Sax investigation is not this collection of expected truths, but rather the people he talks to in his quest to uncover them. For Sax is a tireless interviewer; he will talk deli with just about anyone. In New York, that meant every deli owner present and past who is still gabbing, from Fred Austin at Katz's to Ronnie Dragoon at Ben's in Long Island. And in between, his list extended to nearly anyone of interest who had ever been to a deli and liked it: Ruth Reichl, Alan Dershowitz, Ed Koch and on and on.
By the time he is done with his trek from New York, through Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Kansas City, San Francisco, you name it, he has had a chat on the state of the deli with everyone from Hy Diamond, who owns Schwartz's in Montreal, to 94-year-old Al Langer (and his accompanying oxygen tank) at Langer's in L.A. And his eagerness to connect with deli enthusiasts has run the gamut from Mel Brooks (born Melvin Kaminsky) to Mr. T, who rather surprisingly provides one of the best quotes in the book: "Anyone who says deli is bad for you: I pity the fool. That's a bunch of junk."
This enthusiasm for the subject is fantastic; but at the same time, the book has problems aplenty. The biggest is that as each chapter goes by it becomes increasingly difficult to share his appetite for another Reuben or bowl of matzo ball soup. The first few pages drove me to such hunger for smoked meat that I seriously considered hopping a flight to Montreal for lunch at Abie's, but a few chapters later, I was beginning to feel ill and wishing he would just write a quick line or two about a refreshing salad.
Or not. For the writing is a problem and it is clear from the outset that Sax's editors were asleep at the switch. Example: In the book's first sentence, Sax writes that his deli-loving grandfather "Poppa" Sam Sax died two years before he was born. In only the next paragraph, Sax volunteers: "I never met 'Poppa' Sam." Go figure. (M&S editors, also please take note: The most successful hockey team in history is not actually called the "Montreal Canadians," but rather the Montreal Canadiens).
Alas, it is when Sax writes about food that things get really strange. For example, at the 2nd Avenue Deli in New York he finds that the bowls of chicken soup "are so densely packed with the fatty essence of the poultry that they glowed," and he does not cower or run - he likes it.
On Coney Island, Sax recommends a hot dog that is "light pink and incredibly juicy, tasting of caramel without the repercussion of saltiness." What is that supposed to mean? And if you know, is it good?
An occasional critical capacity would be welcome too, for a book that is ostensibly about the demise of the delicatessen instead gives the impression that they are everywhere, and largely of impeccable quality. Dish after dish is the best Sax has ever sampled. He even has this to say of the deli in his former hometown: "The spices in Toronto pastrami tickle the taste buds without overwhelming them." Translation: It's bland.
The book ends on a happy note, for Sax concludes that the deli will live on, and maybe even improve itself in the fight. This book is a good guide for anyone who ever worried that this was not the case.
Jacob Richler is a Toronto-based food writer.