Each Wednesday, I look forward to the Food Section of the New York Times. I love to read the restaurant reviews even if I can’t or shouldn’t eat the vast majority of the foods that are described. I love to read the descriptions of contemporary cuisine specialties even though I probably wouldn’t eat them even if I could. Still, the descriptions of the elaborate entrees, appetizers and desserts are fascinating to me.
Occasionally, one of the other articles in the section will also interest me. I remember, particularly, an article a few years back which talked about some “comfort foods” unique to various parts of the country. One that was mentioned was a “pie shake” which was a local delicacy in, I believe, Iowa. You make a regular milk shake but before mixing it up, you add big chunks of fruit pie, crust and all of course, into the blender. It sounded great and we did make a few using Entenmann’s fruit pies. They were pretty good although I’m sure the Iowans did it better.
But, this week there was an article which appeared in the Food Section which really caught my attention. It was called “Everything New is Old Again” and described the reawakening of interest in traditional Eastern European Jewish “deli” cuisine. The article documented the new twists that are taking traditional foods to a new, exciting, contemporary level.
You can read the article and decide for yourself whether these new creations sound good to you but I’m going to use the opportunity of the article to pay tribute to the old style of Jewish deli food. I happen to be an expert in such things as I was a waiter in a kosher delicatessen for a few years during high school and college.
Now, right here, I have to remind you that I grew up in Boston and even though there were a couple of what might pass for “New York delis” in our area (does anyone remember Jack and Marion’s?), most Boston delis were not quite up to the standards set by the Big Apple. In addition, the kosher delis didn’t sell the New York brands of deli meats but mostly sold Morrison and Schiff, the local Boston Kosher purveyor of kosher meats. They were certainly very good although when I moved to New York for Rabbinical School, I discovered how bland our local brand was in comparison.
But, still, deli is deli and my years working in a kosher deli were unforgettable.
While I don’t think that I could write a book called: “Everything I Learned about Being a Rabbi, I learned in the Deli” (that distinction would more properly be attributed to what I learned working as staff at Camp Ramah), but I learned a lot of skills that I remember to this day.
More about that later. First, the food.
The memories came back to me as I read the article and thought about the menu. Is there really such a thing as “lean corned beef” and if there is does anyone really want to eat it? What is really the difference between corned beef, pastrami and what used to be called rolled beef? Does anyone eat p’tcha any more (look that one up if you have to)? And, finally, does anyone make real kishka anymore or is all artificial?
But, the major attraction of the deli I worked in was the food that came out of the kitchen. The owner’s sister, a woman in her 70’s, cooked meals every day and I can still taste them as I think about them. But, they all carried with them a story.
For example, the deli offered a “Hot Meat Ball” Sandwich. That was a potted meat ball squashed between what Bostonians called a “vienna roll”, a crusty bakery roll. The meatball was incredibly moist and spiced just right. But, imagine the surprise a customer would receive if they came in and ordered expecting an Italian meatball sub smothered in tomato sauce. I didn’t want to apologize to one who ordered the sandwich before bringing it to them but felt the need to do so if I wanted to ward off any complaints. Occasionally, I would forget and I can still see the face of the customer who got something entirely different than they expected.
Then, there was the Stuffed Cabbage. When my Grandmother made stuffed cabbage, she would not put any sauce on it, just the cabbage stuffed with meat (and her special touch: ground up ginger snaps). I rarely ate it when she made it. It tasted OK but I kept thinking something was missing.
Then when I started at the Deli. I saw that the cook made stuffed cabbage with a sweet and sour tomato sauce and I thought it was great. When I told my grandmother about it, she said; “I never heard of such a thing” and stormed away.
One night, our family came to eat at the deli (the only time I remember serving them) and I brought out a piece of stuffed cabbage just so my grandmother would taste it. She took one bite and started yelling my mother: “I told you, Gertrude, this is the way you make stuffed cabbage and all these years you’ve been telling me to make it without any sauce”. My mother didn’t argue. But, from that moment on, stuffed cabbage in our house came with tomato sauce
But, my favorite moment at the deli, the one I remember most dearly came one night when there was only one vegetable in the kitchen. So, the line on the menu which read: “choice of vegetable” did not apply.
When one regular customer came in and asked what the choice of vegetable was, I said: “Peas and Carrots”.
He said: “Peas or Carrots?’
I said: “No, peas and carrots” referring of course to the legendary canned mixture of peas with cubes of carrots.
The customer said: “So what’s the choice?”
And I, knowing he was a steady customer who didn’t mind being kidded, said: “You want ’em or you don’t want ’em”. He thought it was funny. thank God.
But I use that line often to this day. Sometimes someone will ask me about a particular point in Jewish law and say to me: “But, isn’t there a choice?”
It is then that I tell them the story of the deli. Sure there’s a choice: “You follow the law or you don’t follow it”.
Actually, that is a bit unfair since change is built into Jewish law but sometimes that is the only answer that one can give when confronted with a person who doesn’t like a position of Jewish law. I want people to observe Jewish law as it is but obviously, in the end, if the law can’t be changed, it is up to the individual to decide.
That is one of the lessons I learned about being a Rabbi from working in the deli. There were many others, the most important being that each customer needed to be treated with respect and patience. That may be the most important lesson of all.
I would come home smelling like pickles, would wake up in the middle of the night after a busy day and find myself still taking orders in my dreams and I really never quite had the same taste for deli after serving it for so long. But, the article reminded me of how much emotion and memory is wrapped up in the foods we love.
Gotta go, it’s time for lunch.