When I started my Food and Culture blog earlier this year, I imagined describing exotic foods from distant lands to illuminate intriguing cultural insights. Ironically, it never crossed my mind to include my own food culture, which I suppose could be called Jewish American. Growing up in a more culturally, than religiously identified family in Los Angeles, my grandmother’s house was the center of all things Jewish. Like generations of Jewish matriarchs, she carried the torch of fluffy matzo balls, fork-tender brisket and crispy, golden latkes.
But it was my grandfather who introduced me to the delights of Jewish delicatessens on Friday afternoon forays to collect foodstuffs for the weekend. I was just about as tall as the pickle barrels that sat on the sawdust sprinkled floors. He would reach inside and to my amazement, pull out bulbous, dripping jade pickles; then order up smoked whitefish and tongue, which the counter man wrapped in neat, white paper rectangles. And as a treat for me, a thick slice of chocolate marbled halvah, studded with pistachio nuts.
Nowadays, I call locavore-loving, food-centric Berkeley home and live walking distance from Saul’s Deli, which organized a recent event that gave me a glimpse of my gustatory split personality. The public forum, entitled A Referendum on the Deli Menu, drew an overflow crowd who listened in respectful awe to an esteemed panel, featuring organic torch-bearer, Michael Pollan, debate the question, “Can the traditional Jewish deli be sustainable?”
Owners of Saul’s Deli, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt explained how mile-long menus with a hundred choices are impractical and expensive. Our grandmothers would laugh at the idea of cold borscht in the winter or hot borscht in the summer. Saul’s owners sought approval from their assembled patrons “to drag Jewish cuisine out of the museum” and reclaim its roots, in which vegetables and grains appeared more often on our forebears’ tables than towering piles of meat and chicken soup was a clever way of squeezing every last ounce of flavor from a leftover carcass. Adelman acknowledged that many deli patrons “hunger for more than pastrami; they hunger for meaning or nostalgia.” But, she added, “the deli has to be re-imagined; it can’t stay in a hermetically sealed vacuum.”
Michael Pollan spoke to sustainability and seasonality and applauded Saul’s recent changes: their exclusive use of organic, locally made, Acme breads, humanely raised meat and produce from nearby organic farmers. Additionally, Saul’s has eliminated Dr. Brown’s sodas, an old favorite that is now sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, substituting house-made natural sodas flavored with celery, ginger, cardamom and seasonal fruit, annually saving 20,000 pop bottles and replacing 360,000 plastic straws with compostable cardboard.
Like most of the crowd, I endorse the efforts of Saul’s owners and support locally sourced, sustainably grown food. Their grass-fed roast beef, butternut squash soup and winter vegetable salad with beets, feta and pine nuts are yummy. And yet…even though my socially-responsible adult brain knows this is better for the planet…my petulant inner kid screams, “sustainability, sheshmainability! I crave a corned beef sandwich stuffed so full of meat it would require a tire-jack to open a mouth wide enough to take a bite. I miss my Dr. Brown’s caramel colored cream soda! I long to dive into this edible memory, and be cocooned in its embrace.”
The delicatessen of my childhood and young adulthood was Canter’s Deli in L.A.’s once completely Jewish Fairfax district. Canter’s is still open 24 hours a day and delivers bulging ½ pound corned beef sandwiches on soft, yet chewy rye bread, with the ubiquitous bowl of pickles on formica tables that haven’t changed much in more than half a century. Back in the 1970’s, as an actress in my husband’s experimental Jewish Theater company, Canter’s was the perfect spot to hit at midnight after a rehearsal or performance. Other evenings when we yearned for some pseudo-maternal energy, a well-upholstered waitress who urged us to call her “Mama,” delivered steaming plates of hot turkey sandwiches and kasha mit varnishkas (buckwheat groats with bow-tie pasta).
Whenever I return to LA – and lately, it’s been to visit my father who is slowing succumbing to the mind-robbing effects of Alzheimer’s — I always pay my respects to Canter’s, where time has miraculously stood still; the seediness of the neighborhood matched only by the dependable seediness of the rye bread. It is supremely reassuring to find that some things do not have to change. In these moments, I don’t give a fig about locally grown produce. I want someone to take care of me — the Jewish way, with too much food. I want to submerge myself in a steaming bowl of chicken soup, wrap myself in a comforter of warm cheese blintzes, cuddle up with a hot potato knish, slathered with dark mustard. After losing myself in a mound of corned beef on chewy rye and slurping a satisfying Dr. Brown’s cream soda, I hit the bakery, where Canter’s hair-netted, Russian bakery clerks, like surrogate Jewish mothers, wrap up enough dense pumpernickel rye, oozing raisins, cinnamon sprinkled rugelach and chocolate dipped almond horns to last me the entire drive home to Berkeley.