Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Save the Deli by David Sax

The other day, I caught the end of Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose.  If you haven't seen it or don't remember, it's a bunch of comedians sitting around the Carnegie Deli recalling stories of talent agent, Danny Rose, and the lengths he would go to for his roster of marginally talented performers, among them a stuttering ventriloquist and a blind xylophone player.

The film was one of my father's faves and he and I watched it together a number of times and recalling that made me happy. Too, the Carnegie Deli makes me happy and giant deli sandwiches make me happy, as does the idea of old comics sitting around telling stories in the Carnegie Deli over giant sandwiches.  So I burst into tears.  Deep sobs, actually.  That day was my father's birthday.  He's been gone since 2006 and I miss him.  My father had an appreciation of those things and passed that appreciation on to me.  Bless him.

After reading Save the Deli, I think author David Sax would understand the sobs.  He treats the topic with a lot of love and respect and while I have no idea if his father is alive and well (I certainly hope so), he gets the idea that deli is just kind of in your blood.  As Ken Kesey said, you're either on the bus or off the bus and I'm on the bus.  So much so, that I was hell-bent on visiting Schwartz's in Indianapolis on a recent weekend trip--they didn't disappoint--and I've been looking into flights to Montreal since Sax' description of a smoked meat sandwich has me more than intrigued.  Pair that with a recent Calvin Trillin New Yorker piece on a dish called poutine, said also to be born of Montreal, and I've got a weekend in the works.

Sax gives readers a history of the deli, really an American culinary and cultural phenomenon heavily influenced by Eastern European Jews, the current state of the delicatessen and a glimpse of the future for the deli.  What was once a thriving food culture has struggled for some time and tastes have changed a great deal but he leaves the reader with the hope the cuisine may be poised for a comeback.  However, without some reinvention and real love, it could just as easily go the way of the dodo.  Eating at a deli isn't meant to be a nostalgia trip or a tourist stop.  It's an experience that should be shared, perhaps over a very large pastrami on rye with some Guldens brown mustard and a Dr. Brown's soda.  Save the Deli captures that feeling very, very well. 

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