Issue 5 - Summer 2007 - The Healthy Issue
WORRY LESS, EAT MORE
Why has the Ashkenazi diet abandoned pastrami? The case for a schmaltzy revival from the deli trail in America
Rose Guttman rises before dawn each day and drives through the cold, dark Michigan morning to Tony’s Embers Deli, a small diner/delicatessen in the Detroit suburb of Orchard Lake. Firing up the burners and opening the pantries, she’ll quickly find a rhythm, dancing her tiny frame around the big kitchen with the confidence of someone who has spent her whole life feeding people. She’ll hoist heavy cake pans as if they were empty, standing on milk crates to toss them onto the top shelves of the walk-in fridge.
At nearly eighty years old, she doesn’t do this work out of necessity; it is love. “I’m not a talker,” Rose says in her Romanian-Yiddish accented voice, talking about her yenta contemporaries. “I don’t care about people’s lives. I’m not a luncher!” Instead she lives to fashion softball-sized matzah balls in her huge, calloused hands from schmaltz, raw eggs, and matzah meal, plopping them into an amber chicken stock that simmers like a pot of melted gold.
Everything in Rose’s kitchen is made from scratch. Nothing is preserved, premade, or frozen. “You don’t cheat the public, honey,” she tells me of the majority of restaurants, which systematically cut corners. “You just cheat yourself.” Which is why Rose is there every morning, making sure her fat cabbage rolls are stuffed with freshly stewed meat and rice, or that the creamy farmer’s cheese and strawberry filling in her plump blintzes are ready to explode when a fork breaks their buttery crust. When you bite into Rose Guttman’s corned beef knish, with its egg-tanned dough and freshly chopped pink hash, your mouth knows that this is food made with love and to be loved.
So why are so many Jews afraid of it?
I want you to repeat the following out loud: Deli is good for me. Corned beef won’t kill me. I was born to eat blintzes.
Why should the above sound so ridiculous?
Because we are told by “nutritional experts” that knishes are empty carbs. That a bissel of chopped liver is a guilty indulgence. And a pastrami sandwich? Nothing less than a death sentence. One Jewish cardiologist alarmingly told me that “deli has killed more Jews than the Gestapo.” Somehow the idea that the food of your Ashkenazi ancestors can be both delicious and nutritious seems verboten in this day and age.
I don’t buy any of it. For two months this past winter I ate an average of three deli meals a day, every day, while researching a book I’m writing on the decline of deli. I drove over 10,000 miles from Toronto west to Los Angeles, then east to Florida and back north again, eating at delicatessens all along the way for breakfast, lunch, and often dinner.
On a typical day I could find myself eating three different servings of chopped liver, two Reubens, four blintzes, one latke, two kishkes, a platter of pastrami, corned beef and turkey, or an entire side of nova, often at one sitting, with an eager owner inquiring, “What? You’re not going to finish all of it?” Sure, I jogged often and instituted portion control — noshing more than fressing by taking select bites of many dishes — but when the good stuff was put in front of me, such as Langer’s unbeatable pastrami or Rose’s blintzes, I cleaned the plate.
My family worried I’d grow tired of the food, while my friends supposedly took bets on when the heart attack would strike. Thankfully, after close to a hundred delis in two dozen states, neither transpired. I’d be sitting in the third south Florida strip mall of the day when a waft of salty tongue would hit my nose and I’d fall in love all over again. Better still, the number on the scale at the end of the road miraculously managed to decline a digit or two. Far from killing me, deli only made me stronger. Is there a lesson for the rest of us?
Over the past half century, traditional Jewish food has shifted from the basis of our diet to an ethnic diversion in the same vein as Greek or Italian food (I’d include Chinese, but it occupies a higher pedestal). Whereas blintzes and flanken were once regular fixtures on the plate, they are now treats reserved for holy days and the occasional Sabbath. When I tell people that I’m writing a book on delicatessens, they tell me how much they love deli. “Oh yeah, when was the last time you ate at a deli?” I ask. The average answer is six months ago, or more. The reason most often given is health. Deli and other Ashkenazi foods are high in fat and cholesterol, they say, and fat is evil.
Tell that to Rose Guttman and millions of others who have made it a long way into their lives on that diet and done just fine. “Don’t eat junk food, honey. As long as it’s homemade, it’s fine.” Consider the alternatives today: prepackaged and highly processed “fat-free” frozen meals or preservative-laden, quasi-ethnic entrées from chain restaurants. These are foods designed in laboratories and test kitchens, and when I was on the road they were what lurked just off the freeway. In delis I knew I would be guaranteed real food.
Besides, those cardiologists haven’t had the last word. “For years they were telling us how margarine was better for us than butter and animal fat,” Jarrett Eggers told me at Jimmy and Drew’s 28th St. Deli in Boulder, Colorado, where the schmaltz is rendered daily by skimming the fat from the top of the chicken stock. “Now we find out that margarine is loaded with trans fats, which are suddenly worse for you than anything. Schmaltz is just chicken fat, nothing added. I’ll trust it any day over the rest of that crap.”
Is it too late for deli’s sake? California rolls have supplanted cabbage rolls at the kitchen table, and I can’t name five friends, male or female, who can make a matzah ball from scratch, myself included. In the multibillion-dollar kosher food industry, the buzz today is all about mock shrimp and frozen pizza. Fake crab, mayo, and rice have succeeded in the assimilation of our appetites with a speed that Cossacks could only dream of. Deli food has been relegated to nostalgic status, a guilt-ridden token bite of Jewish culture every few months for those who go to shul once a year or less.
Still, our stomachs are naturally inclined toward deli. Over the course of dozens of generations, all that pastrami, kugel, herring, and coleslaw has stamped itself onto our dietary genetic code. It makes sense. Prone as my system is to revolting against the introduction of lactose, spice, curry, and an excess of dim sum, I’m happy to say that I have never spent hours on the can because of a blintz. When I go to Israel and inevitably spend a large part of my trip wrestling with the effects of hummus and shwarma on my bowels, my Ashkenazi genes are sending the message that I’m predisposed toward pastrami.
Head to your local deli every few weeks and taste for yourself. Bathe in the rich patois of Yiddish-peppered conversations about medical ailments and family troubles. Inhale deeply the pungent perfume of salt, garlic, and steaming briskets. Then, position yourself over the plate, gaze upon that marbled pile of corned beef nestled between two small discs of soft rye, a canary streak of mustard spilling off the edge, and know that this was a meal made for you. &