Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen

Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen

by David Sax

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David Sax's delightful travelogue is a journey across the United States and around the world that investigates the history, the diaspora, and the next generation of delicatessen.


David Sax was alarmed by the state of Jewish delicatessen. As a journalist and lifelong deli lover, he watched in dismay as one beloved deli after another closed its doors, only to be reopened as some bland chain restaurant laying claim to the cuisine it just paved over. Was it still possible to save the deli? He writes about the food itself—how it’s made, who makes it best, and where to go for particular dishes—and, ultimately, what he finds is hope: deli newly and lovingly made in places like Boulder, Colorado, longstanding deli traditions thriving in Montreal, and the resurrection of iconic institutions like New York's 2nd Avenue Deli. No cultural history of food has ever tasted so good. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547386447
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 346
Sales rank: 1,150,626
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

The world’s foremost expert on delicatessen, DAVID SAX has visited hundreds of delis, scoping out the best places to eat every Jewish delicacy, and has created a dedicated network of deli lovers through His journalism—on everything from food, travel, and drink to culture and politics—has appeared in New York, GQ, Saveur, and the New York Times

Read an Excerpt


Next! Behind the Counter at Katz's Delicatessen

8:14 P.M.: Basic Training

Charlie held out a white kitchen apron and a brand-new red Katz's Delicatessen baseball hat. I tied the apron on and slipped the hat onto my head.

"Okay," Charlie said, "follow me."

We walked two-thirds of the way down Katz's massive counter, squeezing into a narrow opening. Charlie called one of the countermen over.

"Yo John," Charlie said. "This is David. He's going to start cutting tonight." John nodded and looked at me with more than a hint of suspicion. "Just show him how it's done, okay?" John okayed in approval. Charlie looked at me, smiled, and sang the words "Good luck."

John had no time to waste. "Yo man, here's what you do." He swung his body around 180 degrees, grabbing the hot handle of the steam box. Big as an office desk, the array of large metal steam boxes are the final home for Katz's pastrami and corned beef. As John opened one of the lids, a blast of steam shot out, blanketing our bodies in the perfume of garlic, salt, and sweating meat that had been seasoning countermen here for generations. He pulled his head back for a second. Then he dove in.

Using a two-pronged carving fork, John sorted through a hot treasure chest of meat, stabbing and flipping until he found a pastrami that caught his eye. After he hauled out the meat, John and I stepped back to the wooden cutting board. Repositioning the pastrami so the leaner tip pointed to his right and the fatter end was directly in front of his belly, John raised his fork and sunk it about two and a half inches from the tip. "Okay man, watch carefully," he said. "You wanna hold your knife on an angle, and use the fork to help control it." Resting the back of the knife's edge against the fork on a 45-degree angle, he drew back his arm and sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt-sskt perfect slices of pastrami rhythmically came away.

John now raised the knife and THWACK came down, splitting the ribbons of pastrami into two even piles. He then delicately slid the blade underneath one half of the meat and lifted it neatly on top of the other half. Grabbing two slices of rye from beneath the counter, John took a wooden spoon out of a bucket of spicy brown mustard and painted the bread. He placed the meat on the rye and closed it, cutting the sandwich in half. He once again slipped the knife beneath and lifted the whole thing onto a waiting plate. John pulled the blade back and voilà, the sandwich rested there perfectly.

Next, we squeezed by other cutters and grabbed three pickles from two buckets. John lined them up side by side, held them in place with his hand, and with three quick slashes he sliced the pickles in half, tossing them onto another plate. "That's it, man. You got it?" I nodded. John stepped out of the way, raised his hand, and flicked a "come here" wave to the crowd, shouting "Next!" Within seconds customers started to line up in front of me, yelling orders.

"Katz's has to exist because if it didn't no one else would have any standard by which to be judged."

Having co-owned Katz's Delicatessen since 1988, Fred Austin seemed to be a tailor-made figurehead for the bad-ass deli. Goateed and bald, he stood well over six feet tall and boasted a substantial girth, which, given his image in the yellowing photos, had been steadily compounding over the years. "You can tell how long a person's worked here by how much weight he's put on," Austin once joked to a reporter. He was raised in the Lower East Side of the 1950s and 60s, and deli was tied into the very fabric of his life. "There were delicatessens literally on every block," Austin said, including two (Brother's and Henry's) on the very same stretch of Houston Street as Katz's. "You couldn't walk a block without tripping over one. Now, we're the only one left."

It is sadly fitting that the last original Jewish delicatessen on the Lower East Side also happens to be the oldest, not only in New York, but worldwide. The business was established in 1888 by the Lustig family, who sold to the German-born Eisland brothers in 1902, at a site directly across Ludlow. They were bought out in 1916 by Benny and Harry Katz (also German), who changed the name to Katz's and moved the deli across the street. In 1950, the Katz brothers doubled the deli in size, moving the entrance to the current location at the corner of Houston and Ludlow.

Over two decades ago, Fred Austin's brother-in-law, Alan Dell, told him that Katz's Delicatessen was for sale. Katz's had been on the market for a number of years, and Austin and Dell, businessmen with no deli experience, scooped it up from the Katz family. "I remember this huge feeling of nostalgia came over me when I walked in the door the first time and nothing had changed," Austin said. Their honeymoon was brief.

"It was rough going," Austin recalled. "There used to be crack addicts hanging out on the median strip on Houston Street. ... New York was a deadly place for a long time. It was prominently highlighted as an example of a city that was going to be abandoned in twenty years." Austin and Dell reduced their salaries, shortened business hours, refinanced the mortgage, and cut back on staff. Katz's just squeezed by until the 1990s, when momentum shifted. "Ever since then things have been good," Austin said. "The city has rebounded with a joy and a vengeance that no one had expected."

The Lower East Side is now one of the most dynamic areas of Manhattan. Where tenements and warehouses once stood, condos rise in their place. Where salamis and pickles were once sold from pushcarts, today they can be bought at the nearby Whole Foods. Fashion boutiques are quickly replacing shops hawking schmattes, while butchers have been converted into clubs and bars. The junkies are long gone and tourism has now become the base of Katz's clientele. During the week, Austin estimates, half the deli's sandwiches are sold to tourists. On the weekend, that number jumps to 75 per cent. To cater to them, Austin and Dell have expanded the menu, adding cooked items such as blintzes, soups, and even Philly cheese steaks. Where people once stayed away from the deli after dark, Katz's recently expanded its weekend hours to 3 a.m., to accommodate the after-bar crowds. Late night was becoming as important as the lunch rush.

"You have to come in at night," Austin told me.

I asked him if I would be able to go behind the counter and interview the cutters.

"You can cut sandwiches if you want to."

Was he serious? How could I possibly pass this up?

"Show up this Saturday around five o'clock. We'll put you to work," Austin said, adding, "Just don't lose any fingers," without even the hint of a smile.

8:20 The First Slice Is the Sweetest

"Are you open?" asked a man in rumpled sports jacket.

I stared past him blankly.

"Hey, umm, can I, like, get a sandwich?" he asked again.

Wait. Did they seriously expect me to step up and start making sandwiches?

"Uhhh, yeah, sure, what'll ya have?" I asked.

"Gimme a pastrami on rye."

Easy enough. I wheeled around to retrieve a pastrami from the steam box and stepped right into the path of one of the other cutters, nearly smacking my face into a scalding hunk of corned beef hanging off his sharp fork. "Cuidado!" he snarled in Spanish. The steam blinded me momentarily, clearing to reveal twenty pastramis piled in a shallow pool of bubbling black water. I stabbed and flipped a few, but couldn't really discern any difference. I picked up a random hunk, turned back to the counter, and ceremoniously slapped the meat down onto the worn wood. Let's see, what did John do?

First, leaner tip to the right and sink your fork in. Good.

Knife on an angle against the fork. Good.

The knife was sharp and the meat cut easily.

"Yo man! Yo yo yo! Whatchu doin'???"

I looked up to my right to see one of the busboys, the youngest staff behind the counter, running over as if I were carving up his cat. "Man, first you gotta give the guy a taste," he said. The customer looked a little puzzled but eagerly plopped the meat in his mouth and promptly deposited a rolled-up bill into the tip cup. The busboy handed me back the knife and I resumed cutting, instantly bringing out another cry of "No, no, no, no, man, look!" He took the knife and cut gracefully, his slices falling more evenly than mine and also thinner. He handed me back the knife and, with the look of a disappointed teacher, went back to hauling plates. I could understand why. Busboys weren't even allowed to touch knives; they had to earn their way up to the cutting board via the broom, and here was some fool who walked in off the street and started butchering sandwiches.

I cut the slices in half, piled them up, grabbed the bread, slathered the rye with mustard, slid the meat onto the bread, and closed the sandwich. Not bad. Then I went to cut the sandwich and my hand went through the bread. The cutting board was now a mess of pastrami slices, torn rye, and mustard. Shit. I grabbed more bread and tried to reconstruct the sandwich as best I could. What emerged was neither pretty nor proper, though it was entirely edible, which I assured the customer with a knowing smile.

"Pickles?" he asked.

Squeezing the pickles between my fingers, as John had shown me, I rapidly drew the knife across each, taking out a chunk of cumbersome rubber glove in the process, though, thankfully, no fingers. I handed over the pickles and sighed with relief.

"Do you want my ticket?" the customer asked.

I realized then that I had no idea how much any of this cost.

"Umm hey," I asked the counterman on my left, "how much for pastrami?"

"Thirteen forty-five."

"Do I just write that on the ticket?" I asked again. "Is there a code or something?"

"Yeah, man, just write it on," he replied. "Jeez."

I put the ticket on the cutting board, where it quickly soaked up all the meat's grease and became transparent. I scrawled as best I could and left the cashier to figure it out. Customer No. 1 just walked away dazed. One sandwich down and I was already exhausted, dejected, and in way over my head.

9:00 P.M.: The Steady Hours

Each sandwich I made was progressively better. I cut more quickly and more evenly, chopping and stacking the meat in one clean motion. The cutter to my left, Freddo, gave me tips as I went along:

— Don't scrape the board with the edge of the knife. It dulls the blade.

— Cut leaner meat from the tip and fatter from the back.

— If you don't have a lineup, put the meat back into the steam box so it stays moist.

— Dig the pastramis out from the bottom of the steam box. Those have been steaming the longest.

Though Katz's pastrami is smoked by an outside purveyor, it is dry cured. This gives Katz's pastrami its signature dark red color and also a less salty flavor, which many claim is the finest in New York, if not anywhere. A traditionally made product has its nuances. Like snowflakes (if snow came from cattle), no two pastramis are exactly alike. Sometimes the flesh would be buttery soft, with very few sinews to impede my carving, but often I'd cut into one that was tough and fibrous, and I'd find myself battling through a maze of tissue. Pros would call this "butchering," which a growing pile of wasted scraps attested to. Whenever I hit a tough piece, Freddo did his best to teach me how to carve it properly, slicing along the fatty center of the pastrami, a highway of sorts, until it split in two, and then watching as he trimmed the "shit" out — those thin, tough, yellow membranes that ruin a sandwich. I soon learned to admit a sort of failure. If a pastrami was too tough, I'd bring it back to the steam box to tenderize longer and get another. This is the same way experienced Katz's customers order their sandwiches.

"The pastrami is unmatched at Katz's," famed defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz told me. Raised on kosher delis in Brooklyn, Dershowitz has his Katz's ordering down to a science. "You have to stand in front of the counterman with three or four dollars in your hand, and you have to taste three or four different pastramis before you accept one. It's like a wine in France. It's either too lean or too fat. I remember when I was trying to be healthy once, I ordered a lean pastrami at Katz's and it was a disaster. It was inedible, and we had to order one that was more marbled. We realized the idea is not to have less fat pastrami, but to have less fat pastrami."

The crowd arrived in waves. Everything would be quiet for twenty minutes, and then they'd appear in front of me, holding out tickets and barking orders like Wall Street traders. For half an hour I'd work in a daze until the lineup just disappeared and I could take a moment to wipe my board down, regroup, and talk with the other cutters.

A nineteen-year-old Dominican-born counterman who had started at Katz's three years before, Freddo's real name was Alfredo Fernandez. He certainly looked older, with a pencil-thin beard and compact frame, but his impish grin, and the fact that he occupied the far end of the counter, betrayed his youth. Like Freddo, most of the countermen at Katz's are either Dominican or Puerto Rican. The night shift is largely in the hands of the younger generation. Charlie, the night manager, who was in his late twenties, had started at Katz's in his teens, but studied hospitality in college, and was now high up in the deli's management. Though he worked some days, it was the late shift that Charlie loved most. "In the day you got a lot more older people and a lot more orders to go," he said. Lunch lineups can snake out the door, which is astounding considering the place can seat up to 355 diners. If a tour bus happens to disgorge its passengers, up to a dozen cutters will face lineups seven-deep.

Nights were also when the cutters let loose, teasing each other constantly. The narrow space between the counters became a gauntlet of doom, as hip checks and arm grapples met brazen countermen who dared walk into another man's space. At one point, Beni, one of the most senior cutters, grabbed me by the arm and started twisting, taunting me in Spanish, calling me a pussy, slowly jabbing his carving fork into my side. I froze. Beni then looked up and realized he had the wrong guy. "Hey, sorry, I thought you were someone else," he said, patting me on the back, "but now you're one of us, okay?"

During the night shift, the walnut-skinned Beni (whose full name is Bienvenido Quiros) was the alpha-cutter, occupying the far end of the line, right down by the window. Katz's was Beni's latest (and he hoped last) home in a life of New York delis. When he came over from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, he began working as a butcher at Cookie's, in Long Island. From there his résumé reads straight from the obituary pages of New York Jewish delicatessens: 1st Jewish Deli, 6th Avenue Deli, Broadway Deli, Wolf's Deli. Beni learned to hand-cut meat at the legendary Lou G. Siegel, where they called him "Beni the Surgeon." He then went on to stints at the Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli, Sarge's Deli, and the legendary Schmulka Bernstein's on Essex. Finally, he wound up at Katz's. "This is the best deli by far," Beni said, effortlessly disassembling a corned beef. "The merchandise is so good because when you slice by hand the juice stays in the meat. With a machine, it draws the flavor out." Beni was best known for asking whether customers wanted their pastrami "lean and mean" or "juicy like Lucy."

Of seventy-three employees, only a handful were Jewish, including Austin, Dell, head chef Kenny Kohn, and a Ukrainian-born cutter named Pyotr Okmyansky, known simply as Peter, the oldest, and last, Jewish counterman at Katz's. Peter was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1933, as Stalin's famine was ending. He learned a little Yiddish from his mother, though the food served at Katz's was not something he ate back home. By the late 1970s, Peter was working part-time as a mechanic and played professional trombone in the national music conservatory. When his mother got the chance to come to the United States, Peter went with her, followed a year later by his wife and daughter. They moved to Brooklyn, where Peter worked at a gas station, and in 1985 a friend offered him a job at Katz's. Because the counterman's position came with medical insurance, he took it.


Excerpted from "Save the Deli"
by .
Copyright © 2009 David Sax.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part One: New York, Nu?
1 Next! Behind the Counter at Katz's Delicatessen
2 From Pushcarts to $15 Sandwiches: A Nosh of New York Deli History
3 Formica Philosophy: Why New York Needs Its Jewish Delicatessen
4 Pastraminomics: The Dollars and Senselessness of the New York Delicatessen Business
5 Death of a Deli: The 2nd Ave Deli
Part Two: USA: Coast to Coast with Latkes to Boast
6 Detroit: Motown's Deli Blues and Michigan's Suburban Jews
7 Chicago: Can Deli Return to the Windy City?
8 The Yucchuputzville Diaries Part 1: Goy West Young Man (St. Louis Kansas City—Denver—Boulder—Salt Lake City)
9 I Left My Kishkes in San Francisco
10 Los Angeles: Hooray for Hollywood
11 Las Vegas: Luck Be a Brisket Tonight
12 The Yucchuputzville Diaries Part 2: Schmaltz by Southwest (Scottsdale—Austin—Houston—New Orleans—Atlanta—Washington)
13 Florida: Where Deli Goes to Die
Part Three:Travels in the Deli Diaspora
14 Montreal: A Smoked Meat Kingdom
15 Toronto: Home Bittersweet Home
16 London: God Save the Deli
17 The Fine Art of Jewish Delicatessen in Belgium and Paris
18 Krakow: Heartburn from Poland's Tortured Past
Epilogue Deli's 2nd Coming ( Just Off 3rd Ave)
Food and Yiddish Appendix (for the goyim or woefully assimilated)
Listing of Delis
Illustration Credits

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Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
NewsieQ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
David Sax takes readers all over the world to discover Jewish delicatessens: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Mostly the good. He details their histories, their owners, their suppliers, their menus, their customers. Appendices include a Food and Yiddish appendix and a Listing of Delis. A book to keep on the reference shelf. It was all quite fascinating.Mr. Sax¿s main purpose is, as his title says, is to ¿save the deli.¿ Like many other mom-and-pop businesses, the Jewish deli is in jeopardy. Skyrocketing rents, a dwindling audience, competition from corporate and franchise delis are forcing many Jewish delis to close. David Sax makes readers care about that and want to do something. And it¿s something that¿s easy and exceedingly pleasant to do.
Sabin More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Everytime I read it I want a pastrami sandwich! If you love these foods (of which I have only ever had pastrami and corned beef) you will love this. It is like a food network show, which I'd like to see one of this, but it lasts as long as you take to read it. He goes into the history of deli food, the history of the dishes, history of the delis that he visits, plus the outlook for the future. There is a website under the name of the book you should check out too. I have read it twice!
grumpydan More than 1 year ago
My father owned a deli for over twenty years, and although it wasn't a Jewish delicatessen, it certainly was not a sandwich shop. I could totally relate to what David Sax is writing about in "Save the Deli". He searches the world to see if true delicatessens can and are surviving in this ever changing society of ours. I like how he meets with the deli people and learns the stories of each family's experiences. His descriptive narratives made me want to go out and get myself a hot pastrami sandwich! It's been too long. A delicious book to read!