Jewish Journal

Guest Blogger: A Sustainable Deli?

by Rob Eshman

February 10, 2010 | 6:58 pm

Saul's Grass-Fed Brisket

In 1984 I moved to Israel and lived there for two years.  One of the first people I met was an aspiring journalist named Ilana DeBare.  We worked on stories, met some of the same mildly shady Old City characters, hung out, and then eventually Ilana went back to the States for J school.  She worked for the Sacramento Bee, published a terrific book on founding a private school of girls— Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools (Tarcher/Penguin 2004)—and now is pursuing the dream of being of novelist.  She’s also blogging.

Our paths crossed again this week when Ilana sent me a link to a very thorough blog post she did on a conference held by Berkeley, CA’s Saul’s Deli that featured Michael Pollan and others discussing the idea of a sustainable, ethical deli.  I’ll excerpt a chunk here, but click through to read the whole thing.  Nice to hear from Ilana again… we once shared a lot of hummuses together at Lina‘s, now we’re virtually eating again:

Jews! Food! Ecopolitics! or, how to green a Jewish deli

By Ilana DeBare

Did Saul’s Deli just fire the matzah ball heard ‘round the world?

The Berkeley eatery hosted a panel discussion Tuesday night on Sustainability and the Jewish Deli, featuring foodie superstar Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma), green business consultant Gil Friend, and urban farmer Willow Rosenthal, along with deli owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt.

And since this is the Bay Area – where people love to opine about the politics of food as much as they like to eat it – they drew a sold-out crowd of 250 people at $10 a pop.

Saul’s owners have had two missions for a long time – the official one of operating a traditional Jewish deli with all the comfort foods that American Jews know and love, and a second stealth mission of trying to “green” their business and serve food produced in a environmentally-friendly and humane manner.

They’d done a lot of the easy stuff over the past decade, such as switching to Niman Ranch and Marin Sun Farms beef, replacing industrially-produced rye bread with locally-baked Acme rye, and purchasing organic or local produce.

More recently they started taking on the harder stuff – the stuff likely to cause patrons to yell “shonda.”  They stopped carrying Dr. Brown’s soda and replaced it with their own house-made celery tonic. They limited borscht to the summer months when beets are in season. They stopped carrying salami, since they couldn’t find Jewish-style salami that was sourced from grass-fed beef.

And they started tinkering with the sizes of their sandwiches, figuring the planet really does not need people trying to wrap their jaws around 10 or 12 ounces of pastrami.

Traditional corned beef sandwich from Carnegie Deli
(Or more! The Carnegie Deli in New York sells a $17.95 corned beef and pastrami sandwich that contains 1.5 pounds of meat.)

“We felt a need to communicate (with our community) around the time when using local pickles tipped the cost of a sandwich past $10,” said co-owner Adelman, explaining the genesis of the event. “We needed permission to drag Jewish deli cuisine out of the museum.”

As a deli, Saul’s faces some challenges in trying to “green” itself that a more upscale fine-dining type restaurant wouldn’t:

Organic and artisanal foods often cost more than mass-produced versions. Will deli patrons – looking for a casual meal, not a $40 white-tablecloth dinner – be willing to pay slightly more for sustainability?
Delis like Saul’s are selling memory as much as anything else. How will customers seeking beloved foods from their childhood respond to changes in the menu?
Eating less meat is a key environmental goal. That means smaller portions. Yet a lot of Jewish culture around meals is based on providing a surfeit of food – eat, bubelah, eat! – as a way to show love and economic well-being.
At first glance, trying to green a deli like Saul’s might seem to present a black-versus-white clash of warm ancestral traditions against rigid political correctness.

But in fact, the history and economics of delis are more complicated than that.

Saul’s owners said they lose money with every traditional pastrami sandwich they sell, due to the huge meat portions that customers expect at a low price.

“People pay only $10 for the same amount of meat that would cost $30 or $40 if they bought it as a steak,” Levitt said. “But it’s harder to put on the table than a steak, and they don’t buy wine with it…. The more pastrami sandwiches we serve, the worse our business does.”

So smaller portions are not only more sustainable environmentally: They would help the deli sustain itself as a business.

And the giant portions that we associate with places like the Carnegie Deli are in fact a relatively recent twist in Jewish deli history.

“These foot-high sandwiches are from the post-World War II era,” said Friend. “So this is not about the deli. It’s about post-war America. My dad grew up eating in New York delis in the 20s and 30s, and this is not what they had.”

In fact, there is another deli tradition that precedes the large portions and huge menus – and that is a tradition, based in eastern European poverty, of eking meals out of the smallest and most obscure pieces of meat.

Chicken soup was an effort to get second and third meals out of an already-eaten chicken. And long before stuffed kishkas became frozen, factory-produced entrees involving sausage skins, they were a meal made by stuffing flour and chicken fat into the leftover neck skin of a goose.

“There are two traditions,” Pollan said. “One is the post-war Cadillac sandwich, but then there’s the earlier tradition of using every part of the bird.”

Levitt and Adelman said that the biggest change they hope to make is to narrow their menu from four pages to two, focusing on ingredients that are locally in season.

Read the rest here.

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