A Deli Dilemma

Who can deny a matzo ball?

For the past two years I have been flirting with the idea of vegetarianism. To eat meat or not to eat meat? I was comfortable asking myself this question, but my family was having a significantly harder time with it. My parents would ask: “Can you really give up a Steve’s hot turkey sandwich? Can you honestly not order the toasted Reuben? Are you sick? Do you need to see a doctor?”

Steve’s is my neighborhood deli where I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. If my family didn’t eat at Steve’s, we would go to The Stage Deli. If Stage felt like too far of a drive, we would pick up our pastrami at the Plaza Deli. If Plaza wasn’t open we would go to Deli Unique to pick up our chicken salad and coleslaw to take on the road. I once choked on a pickle at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor when I was ten and every time we visited Ann Arbor thereafter,  I still only ate there. That is deli-dedication. The streets of my childhood memories are lined with these delis. To everyone in my Michigan community, if I no longer indulged in a weekly corn beef and mustard, it would be betrayal.

While experiencing my own deli dilemma, you can imagine my surprise when I opened last week’s New York Times dining section to see a Tower of Pisa-like pastrami sandwich, threatening to topple over, with the headline “Can the Jewish Deli Be Reformed?

In the article, Julia Moskin explores the evolution of the traditional Jewish deli and how the desire for change is coming from within. “New delis, with small menus, passionate owners and excellent pickles and pastrami, are rising up and rewriting the menu of the traditional Jewish deli, saying that it must change, or die.” Many deli owners are responding to “the low standard of most deli food-huge sandwiches of indifferent meat, watery chicken soup and menus thick with shtick- by moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.”

The issue seems to be that the deli of yesterday doesn’t seem to be in line with the food values developing today: ethical production, sustainability, and affordability. Moskin highlights delis across the country that are taking a stand and making sure they are making quality deli food that they can feel good about. As I understood it, the deli isn’t dying, but rather adapting. Although I am not ready to say goodbye to the neon mustard and the dry slices of turkey between two pieces of weak rye, I see the new deli era as a testament to our ability as Jewish people to evolve. We honor change without compromising tradition, and in the case of the deli, it sounds like we’re on our way to making it even better.

Alas, I have chosen to be vegetarian, but I will always be a card-carrying delitarian. I’ll just have to admire the pastrami from afar.

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3 Responses to “A Deli Dilemma”

  1. Evan Says:

    I applaud your decision to be vegetarian! But setting that personal choice aside, I completely agree with you that the new deli era shows a willingness to change – for the better – and still uphold tradition. I think that the “old deli” can align with progressive food values and still thrive.

  2. Alan Chananyah Says:

    Can I make a suggestion? I became a vegan last year because it was easier than keeping kosher.
    I had tried vegetarianism ten years or so ago, but fell off the wagon one day due to an incident with a roll of Jimmy Dean sausage. Jimmy won, I ate sausage for three days…and it was very good.

    So, this time I built into my week what I call ‘cheat day’. It’s simple. One day a week, generally when I go shopping for groceries, I stop by someplace to cheat. Most weeks, I find something without meat at a Mexican restaurant I like, and sometimes I get a veggie burger with greasy fries, and probably once a month or so, I get a big super-sized fat-burger (though pastrami is certainly an option) and I devour it.
    I offer no apologies or regrets. I figure that the cow was dead anyway, and cheating once or twice a month keeps me from falling on the wagon.

    It also allows me to eat my mother’s cooking when I’m visiting, and so there’s no hassles with that.

    Think about it, it’s worked for me.

    Alan-Chananyah

  3. Colin Says:

    Though not a Jew, I often have (wet?) dreams of the Bread Basket Deli in Oak Park, MI. I have also had a vegan Reuben… not horrible, but not the same. I wish you the best of luck with the vegetarianism.

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