Posted by Rob Eshman
Last week in New York we ate at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes on Houston Street in the Lower East Side. My friend Chuck first took me there in 1981. Chuck wasn’t Jewish, but he was vegan, and Yonah’s knishes and borscht fit perfectly into a diet that allowed him to enjoy about 1/100 of any restaurant menu. Chuck was an ethical vegan—he was a professional nonviolent activist, and he refused to use any animal products. He wouldn’t eat honey because it “enslaves” bees. We argued about this constantly. Bees make honey anyway, I’d say. “But not for us,” he’d say.
Chuck was a living reminder of how slippery the slope of food consciousness is. One minute you don’t want to eat a cow whose esophagus is pulled out while it’s alive. The next thing you know, every honeybee becomes Spartacus.
In 1981 the Lower East Side hadn’t been gentrified. We’d get to Yonah Schimmel’s by noon, because by 1 or 2 pm the run down store would be out of knishes and its homemade yogurt. We’d be sure to be out of the area by nightfall. It was full of graffitti, abandoned buildings, and criminals who didn’t share my nostalgia for the neighborhood where my Eshman and Peshkin forbears arrived from Eastern Europe and huddled in crowded tenements. Yonah Schimmel‘s was founded in 1910. Aaron Eshman arrived from Pinsk in 1901 and lived not three blocks from the place. There is no chance, none, that he never sat where I sat, and ate his knish, in joy and peace.
Today the Lower East Side is largely gentrified, and not at all Jewish. Yonah Schimmel’s has hung on, prospered in fact, as the walls full of newspaper stories and celebrity photos can attest. A Ukrainian born family owns and runs the place now. When we ate there a couple weeks ago the place was packed with tourists. The owner alternated between bringing out knishes to the tables and digging through boxes in the back for a size Large Yonah Schimmel T-shirt someone wanted to buy.
The knishes are still good: A baseball-sized hunk of mildly-peppery mashed potato filling surrounded by a thin pastry crust and baked. The kasha-filled knish is a lot of buckwheat groats, more than you’re likely to eat the entire rest of the year. That’s the one Chuck always ordered.
The best menu item is the yogurt. They make it with what they claim is the original culture, started in the Schimmel kitchen in the late 19th century. That means my great-grandfather and I are essentially sharing a yogurt every time I eat there. It’s good too: mild and fresh. And often sold out by noon.
Chuck died several years ago. He was 54 and he developed stomach cancer. Go figure. I go to Yonah Schimmel on every trip to New York. It’s chic now, but it’s the same. All the other vestiges of the Jewish Lower East Side have disappeared: there’s the Tenement Museum, the Blue Moon Hotel, a few shmatta stores from the old days, and Gus’s Pickles—but, face it, it’s over. So what? People led crowded, miserable lives there. They worked hard, got their kids educated, the kids moved out, and their kids never got to experience the joy of living in a tinderbox where 200 other people share the same fetid outhouse.
I don’t go back for the nostalgia. I go for the same reason most Jews give when asked why they attend synagogue once a year: because their parents did. Day to day life can take you far from yourself, from who you are, and you need to do something to bring you back, to anchor yourself to yourself. For some people that means sitting in the pew of their neighborhood church, the one where their mom and grandma knelt. For me it means going back to the place my ancestors ate. I sit and eat and feel myself getting centered, and full.
That’s why I go. To eat a good potato knish with mustard, and with my great-grandfather.
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January 7, 2010 | 7:16 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
So I’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I read four new books about back-the-land intellectuals: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, and Margaret Hathaway’s The Year of the Goat and Novella Carpenter’s Urban Farmer. And now I’m almost through Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.
Three things stand out.
First is that there’s a lot of books on the issues surrounding food. A lot. When I first starting exploring these issues, as a freshman in college faced for the first time with feeding myself. Back then there was exactly one book we all passed around: Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Lappe was the first to critique the amount of grain it took to create a pound of animal flesh. She was the first to question whether a diet based on meat was sustainable, healthy, moral.
Her book was published in 1971, sponsored by Friends of the Earth, and for years it was the touchstone for every college coop discussion on combining proteins. I blame Lappe for all those times I came down to dinner at the co-op kitchen and some gaunt sophomore had cooked up pot # 265 of half-cooked adzuki beans, mushy brown rice and salt-less acorn squash. Yum. No wonder most people, given the choice between a bad dinner and killing the planet, would rather kill the planet. Hunger is all about now, not 100 years from now.
Vegetarian food began a long slog toward edibility, with many dicey footholds along the way. Diet for a Small Planet begat The Vegetarian Epicure, which begat The Moosewood Cookbook, which begat The Greens Cookbook, which begat Chez Panisse Vegetables. The evolution mirrored that in the non-vegetarian cookbook world. From fancy concoctions of faux sophistication to more authentic, stripped down flavors carried by the ingredients themselves. (You can trace the same arc in the magazine world, from early Gourmet magazine to early Saveur).
As the cooking became more refined, the scope and power of Lappe’s basic argument got, so to speak, fleshed out. First rate journalists and writers like Pollan and Schlosser, and first rate writers and thinkers like Kingsolver and Foer, took on different aspects (with a lot of overlap). Their theories were made flesh by people like Hathaway, Kessler and Carpenter, who tried to live according to what I call Foodaism— the idea that food—how we get it, how we eat it— plays a central role not just in our physical well-being, but in our spiritual, economic, environmental and social well-being as well.
Second, I noticed a lot of the strongest voices in Foodaism movement are Jewish. Pollan. Sclosser. Foer. (I’ll throw in the goat people too: Hathaway—yes, a Jew—and Kessler. But that’s a whole other post, the strange attraction between the modern Jew and the ancient goat).
Third—and this is the point of this post—the fact that if you read all these books with an open mind and an open heart, you have to conclude: There Is Nothing to Eat.
The dilemma is the opposite of the one Pollan raised. The thrust of his book was this: If as an omnivore we can eat everything, how do we decide what we should eat? But if you take what he and Foer and others are saying to heart, you have to wonder what’s left for an ethical omnivore to eat. Meat—out. Non organic veggies in the market: out. Organic veggies at Whole Foods shipped using a billion gallons of fossil fuel: out. Fish, eggs and dairy—per Foer—out.
That leaves the vegetables, beans and grains from your local farmer’s market, and anything you can grow yourself, or filch from a neighbor’s tree.
I’m not exaggerating either: the logical conclusion of all the Foodaists thrown together, stirred up and turned out is this: eat like an enlightened peasant.
The good news: you can drink like one too. So far these folks have kept their incisive minds off booze,
More often than not—despite an inner hunger that wants to give in to the entire menu at Balthazar, wine list included—I find myself eating just like they tell me. Once your eyes are open, it hurts a little to will them shut.
My problem is I never want to go back to Cuisine Lappe, the brown rice and vegetables that stank up many a kitchen coop, depressing me and my appetite at once.
Fortunately, I have a loophole on the Foer dictum against eating eggs (he forces us to take into account the cruelty with which even “free range” chickens are raised).
My chickens are the picture of contentment. I rescued them from Johns Feed Store just before their necks were to be inserted in a spinning razor blade. They owe me, and they pay me in two or three delicious eggs each day.
A few nights ago I came up with an ideal way to cook them: poached in olive oil. I served them with some fried potatoes and rapini in garlic. Great winter dish: oily and hot and fatty and salty. And Foodaism-approved.
[RECIPE] Olive Oil-Poached Eggs with Fried Potatoes and Rapini
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Blanch rapini until bright green an tender. Drain. Toss with olive oil, salt, chili flakes and sliced sautéed garlic. Set aside.
Cut a pound of potatoes into ¼ inch cubes. Heat ½ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Add potatoes and fry until broawn. Turn and toss until brown on all sides. Remove and drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Pour about three inches of olive oil into a small saucepan. Heat to about 145 degrees. Using four eggs total, Crack each egg into a small dish then slide gently into the oil. Stand back in case egg splatters. Poach 1-2 minutes, until white is opaque. Remove with slotted spoon, repeat with all the eggs.
Divide potatoes and rapini on four plates, top each with egg, spinkle with more salt and pepper.
Here’s the pics:
December 22, 2009 | 7:09 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In Philly I step into Di Bruni’s, on Chestnut. Everyone but me has evidently heard of this place, a Zabars-on-the Schuykill stuffed with hundreds of cheeses, a banquet of prepared foods, a bakery, seafood and meat counters—all the best. Founded in 1939 by some Italian immigrants, it thrives today as a gourmet food emporium, and a multi-location food and catering business, and it’s online. And it’s crowded, with the ethnic neighborhood feel drained away, replaced by grandeur and competence and corporate efficiency. Nothing wrong with it, but I was feeling a little processed making my way through.
Then I found my cheese guy. He asked if I needed help, and I said just looking, and he said, “Our deal here is you learn a lot more by tasting.”
He started with some perfunctory cuts. Then I asked if he had Haystack. That was all it took. Every religion has secret societies. You could argue religion is a secret society: a community set apart, outside normal, bound together by common beliefs, rites, passions. Think of the Opus Dei, the group within Catholicism that Dan Brown made famous in The Da Vinci Code. (How he could write three books set in Italy and France and include no recipes I can’t figure out).
Well, me and cheese counter guy were clearly in the Society of the Works of the Goat, Opus Capri. The next 15 minutes he walked me through tastes of every local goat cheese, leading up to the holy of holies, a set of fice fresh cylinders from a place Shellbark Farms. His face lit up.
“This is a guy who lives in the exhurbs, surrounded by McMansions, and he just raises his goats there, in a goat house. Forty five minutes from here.”
We’ve spent two days in Philly. 45 minutes of driving only gets you two blocks. Impressive.
“What kind of goats?” I asked.
Now we were going deep. We were bonded. We loved cheese, and goat cheese, and local fresh goat cheese from floppy eared goats.
He handed me a taste of Shellbark’s latest creation, a harder cheese, the creator’s attempt at a provolone-style he grew up with in downtown Philly.
“It tastes like an experiment,” I said. “A first try.”
He like what I said, and I saw him carve out a slice for himself, behind the counter.
They say music is the international language, but they’re wrong. Wherever you go, whatever language you speak, it’s food.
December 11, 2009 | 4:21 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
A few years back I wrote a story about cooking latkes for my wife’s then-congregation. In the spirit of the holiday, here it is:
LATKES WITHOUT END, AMEN
It’s 1991, and I am in the basement kitchen of Temple Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. I don’t know what it looks like now, but back then, many years ago, the place had an Army hospital feel about it: beige cupboards that didn’t sit quite flush on their hinges; floor-level shelves stuffed with mismatched sheet pans, clouded plastic bowls and skillets the size of UFOs; dull counters scratched and scrubbed and scoured by generations of helpful women; and a giant industrial stove—I want to say a Wolf—six or eight sensationally powerful commercial grade burners girded by iron and stainless steel, its pilot lights burning like eternal flames.
My wife, Naomi Levy, was the synagogue’s rabbi at the time. She ruled the upstairs sanctuary and classroom. But I was most comfortable down below, by that inferno of a stove.
Out of college, I had supported a writing habit by cooking and catering. Nothing edible was strange to me. So I prided myself on being able to command any kitchen, from that of the A-list half-Jewish actress in whose Palisades home I’d catered a Christmas dinner of ham and brisket, to Mishkon, where I liked to slip out of services early and help Jesus set up for Kiddush. (At Mishkon, the janitor was a Mexican immigrant named Jesus, the security guard was an Arab immigrant named, no kidding, Mohammed.)
If some congregants were perturbed by a female rabbi who couldn’t cook an egg and a male rebbetzin who hung out in the kitchen, they didn’t let on. They took a sow’s ear and turned it into a kosher meal. Soon I was teaching Passover cooking classes for the synagogue’s adult-ed department, and very soon after Naomi and I started dating, someone asked me to take charge of cooking the latkes for the annual Chanukah party.
Most synagogues have Chanukah parties, and all Chanukah parties have latkes. Not dozens, but hundreds, or thousands. Somehow I suspected that if Rabbi Levy and I were to become an item, I would find myself volunteering or volunteered for such duties. After all, at a homey 200-family shul like Mishkon, everyone has to pitch in, and it wasn’t as if I could teach Mishna. I was no Torah expert, but I did know latkes.
What did I know, and how did I know it?
First of all, anybody who has ever considered a career in food has given serious thought to the potato. When I applied to be a sous chef at a San Francisco restaurant several years earlier, the chef asked me to make an omelet. Then he asked me how I would make a tomato sauce. Then he asked me to peel and cut potatoes. I set out a bowl of cold water, found a good peeler, and proceeded to make short work of it. Every kitchen job I ever had involved pounds and pounds of potatoes, and I grew to understand and respect them so much—this homely, earth-bound lump, transformed into something light and soft or crisp and delectable—that I have never been able to bring myself to calling them “spuds.” I hate that word.
Latkes are a simple form of potato preparation, as potato dishes go. But simplicity in cooking, as the food writer Richard Olney wrote, is a complex thing. I have had rubbery latkes, starchy latkes, undercooked latkes and latkes so greasy that two of them could run a diesel engine for a week.
I learned the basics from my mother, and Joan Nathan. My mother makes superb latkes, but evidently this is not unusual. When I told people I was writing this essay, they all had the same response: that their mother made the perfect latke.
The varieties of latke experience varied among these people’s mothers. The ingredients hardly change: potatoes, eggs, salt, pepper and a binder, either flour or potato starch or matzah meal. But some people mash the potatoes, some grate them finely, some coarsely. Some use onion. Some use more eggs, some less.
Some fry their latkes in a lot of oil, turning them into little rafts on a roiling sea of grease. Others sauté them in nonstick skillets with a tablespoon of canola. The skinless breast meat/egg white crowd, acolytes of la cuisine Lipitor, go one step further, waving a can of PAM over a cookie sheet and baking their pancakes in a hot oven. If your mother does that, and you think she makes the best latkes in Jewish history, good for you, and good for your arteries.
Most of us consider the recipe we were raised on as the best, be it for brisket, fesenjan, kubaneh or latkes. Your search for the perfect latke, then, was over before it began, unless you are like me and have a restless hunger, a belief that with a slight change, a different oil, a coarser grate, maybe a hotter flame, the ideal can be made even better.
Anyway, your mother’s going to die one day. So unless she has taken you to her side and shown you her technique—and latkes are 90 percent technique—you will have to discover the perfect latke for yourself.
This is a bigger problem than the high priests of Jewish continuity care to admit. While they wring their hands over whether the next generation will know Torah and Jewish history and carry Israel close to its heart, who is worried whether young Jews will learn how to skim the fat off a chicken soup or shape a perfect Moroccan cigar? When you lose the recipes, you lose a connection to your past: a past that shaped your very soul. The recipes of our foremothers are, if not our operating system, then some critical software. They provide a sense memory of tradition, a source of potent symbolism, a connection to the past and a link to the future. If you want your grandchildren to remember you fondly, learn a good cookie recipe.
Most Jewish women I know can’t cook like their grandmothers. The men can’t cook like their grandmothers, either. In some cases their own mothers can cook, but didn’t pass the skills along. That’s not to say these people don’t let their marble countertops and DCS ranges lay fallow. Their menus read like the sides of a shampoo bottle: Grill chicken breasts. Broil salmon. Rinse. Repeat. They can empty a bag of mesclun into a bowl, and given time, a pricey measuring beaker and a recipe, they may make a vinaigrette to dress it. If Emeril makes a Yorkshire pudding, they may soil their Sur la Table-ware doing one of those, too. But do they know gribenes? Can they make kreplach? If grandma was Persian, how’s the crust on their chelou? And if the answers are, no, no and soft, what about their children? I suppose there are warm and wonderful Jewish homes that have never known a pot of homemade chicken soup simmering on the stove, but they’d be even warmer and more wonderful with it.
I’m not an out-and-out alarmist about these things. Even a dish like latkes is not an immutable part of Jewish culture. As with so many traditional Jewish foods, its origins can be found in a blend of cultures. Bagels, challah, falafel, hummus, lox—we can say we popularized them, but we cannot with a straight face say we invented them.
Chanukah tradition dictates that foods be cooked in oil, to symbolize the one-day supply of oil that burned for a miraculous eight days in the rededicated Temple. Italian Jews cooked fried chicken on Chanukah and Iraqi Jews zalabia, or fried dough.
Potato pancakes, being cheap and easy and delicious, fit into the concept, and became a staple of Ashkenizic tradition. As for the latke, Yiddish for “potato pancake,” it is common in Eastern European and Germanic cuisine, a Christmas staple served with goose at Ukrainian tables where Jews no doubt adapted the tradition to their own needs. Potatoes didn’t arrive in Europe from their native Peru until the 1500s, so for more than a millennia we managed to keep the holiday alive without them. According to cookbook writer Joan Nathan, before latkes, fried buckwheat cakes were the European Chanukah staple. Yum.
These days, Chanukah flirts with the temptation of capitalist excess that has turned Christmas into a retail orgy. But as long as it features the latke it will retain an obdurate hominess. Designer latkes—made with yams or zucchini or taro or hand-pulled Korean noodles—are invariably a disappointment. Put your great-aunt in a miniskirt and call her a supermodel, it changes nothing. Gussy the holiday up with presents, fuse it with Christmas and Kwanzaa, give it its own feature film and TV special, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re not talking Handel’s Messiah and gingerbread houses. We’re talking three-note songs and fried potatoes. Christmas perfumes the house, Chanukah clings to the drapes: live with it.
Which brings me back to Mishkon Tephilo, circa 1991. We are a crew of men dedicated to providing enough latkes to the synagogue’s annual party. A couple of hours before the congregants arrive, we gather around the dirty tubers. We set up buckets of cool water and start peeling, plopping the potatoes into their bath. I’ve bought eggs by the flatload from Smart & Final, and crack them into a bathtub-sized stainless steel bowl, beat them with salt and pepper, then grate the potatoes, give them a squeeze, and toss them into the eggs. Finally I throw in some grated onion and matzah meal or flour—I don’t remember which and it doesn’t matter. I make latkes like Tommy plays pinball, by feel, and you should, too.
If the batter doesn’t remind you of the sand and seawater you turned into drip castles as a child, it’s not right.
We press every skillet in that overused, under-refurbished kitchen into service, and fill each one with a quarter inch of peanut oil. Then we fire them up.
Rule No. 1 of latke preparation is you can never make enough latkes. If they are good, they will disappear. Everybody has room for one more. Make as many as you can and when they run out they run out (But plan on three per person).
Rule No. 2 is kids are not allowed. Hot oil and children don’t mix. Hot oil and most adults isn’t even a great match, but what can you do?
Rule No. 3 is you may get burned. It happens, and most times it’s not serious.
Rule No. 4 is water is the enemy. Joan Nathan told me to always press as much moisture as possible out of the shredded potatoes. Let the water settle, collect the starch at the bottom and ladle it back into the potato mixture.
Furthermore, while frying latkes, or anything for that matter, if a drop of water lands in the boiling oil, stand way back. It will hiss violently then explode like a bottle rocket, and someone will get hurt.
Rule No. 5 is enjoy yourself. Latkes are among the more forgiving of Jewish foods. Even bad ones are usually edible, especially when heaped with the traditional toppings of applesauce or sour cream.
That’s what I did cooking those latkes in the synagogue basement—I enjoyed myself. I remember the next few hours of my life as a happy moment in time. I insisted that hot latkes just out of the oil were better than frozen and reheated latkes or latkes kept warm in the oven, and they are. So we worked furiously to turn out latkes as people began arriving, and we worked even harder to keep up with demand as the temple basement filled with hungry children, seniors and parents. I didn’t hear a word as my wife led the congregation in blessing the candles or singing “Rock of Ages.” She was in her element, I in mine.
As fast as we loaded the platters with pancakes they disappeared. Sweat soaked our shirts and slicked our faces. If we slacked off for a moment, we faced an impatient mob. We used every last potato, every last bit of batter. There are famous photos of the men who stoke the wood-fired bread ovens of Paris stripped to their waists, torsos glistening as they wrestled with fire to create their perfect loaves, and I think if someone had been there with a camera we were a kind of Ashkenazic variation on the ovens of Poilane. But we kept our shirts on.
Then it was over. Many people said the latkes were perfect. Many more said they were good, but not as good as the ones their mother made. The latkes were as they should be—crispy around the edges, a bit soft in the center, not greasy, 99 percent potato, 1 percent egg. But the experience of making them in the basement of my wife’s synagogue, that was perfect.
And to cap it off, someone—I suspect Danny Brookman—brought the cold beers that appeared in the fridge once we were finished.
Talk about the miracle of Chanukah.
November 5, 2009 | 8:24 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Beautiful and talented Dana Goodyear has a portrait of favorite living food writer Jonathan Gold in this week’s New Yorker. You know you’ve arrived when they write a profile of you in The Jewish Journal. I mean, The New Yorker.
Yes, I’ve made a subspecialty for 10 years now of telling the world what a remarkable service Gold does for food, for culture, for LA. Here’s what I wrote in 1999:
You could map the area of the average restaurant reviewer’s travels, and it would pretty much overlap with Visa’s preferred zip codes. Los Angeles is a city segregated by lack of good public transportation, by massive freeway systems, by staggering home prices, by race. We don’t live in one another’s neighborhoods. We don’t, usually, eat in one another’s restaurants. Gold drives across these boundaries like Il Postino peddling his bicycle from village cottage to hilltop villa. His reviews draw us Angelenos near in a way that a thousand flowery mayoral speeches on tolerance and diversity cannot. Anyone who’s heard Korean pop knows that music is not really the international language. A tour among the grasshopper vendors at a Bangkok market will convince you that food isn’t either. So what is? Appetite. We are all hungry for something, The Farm Dogs memorably sing, and why not take them literally. I wouldn’t eat the “particularly stinky fermented-shrimp sambal” at Sudi Mampir on a bet, but Gold seems to thrive on the stuff. And he describes the glee the Indonesian proprietors express when their loyal customers, longing for a taste of home, feel better after eating it.
We may not understand what our neighbors eat, but we understand their devotion to their grandmothers’ recipes, to the familiar smells, to a finally perfect slice of something eaten a thousand times before, as something very human. Without Gold, a little of the stitching has gone out of the LA fabric. Score one for the Forces That Pull Us Asunder. In the building where I work, the easiest way for me to start a conversation with the Phillipino consular officials, the Korean bankers, the Latino journalists, the black lawyers, is to ask them about the food I know they are hungry for. Without Gold, how will I know?
Goodyear writes a marvelous description of Gold—the woman began her career as a poet, after all. Though I’ve never met Jonathan Gold, I’ve seen him, and she writes what I saw: heavy set, shlumpy (my word, not hers), bright red hair longish and thinning—my meory is that if the cartoon shop guy in the Simpsons and Mario Batali had a son….
The piece made me think of that specialized class of heavyweight Jewish gourmand writers/personalities. I mean, very heavyweight. Jeffrey Steingarten, Andrew Zimmern—the host of that show on The Travel Channel—and the grandaddy in a trough of his own, A. J. Liebling. Liebling, the son of Jewish immigrants, became the finest food and sport writer of his time, spending most of his career at The New Yorker. He died in 1963 at the age of 59, having lived a life of wonderful excess.
I admire these men, but I’m incapable of emulating them. For one, I’m too vain. And I love food too much to have to blame it for killing me. I don’t have their talent for eating or for writing, but I look forward to every word they write and bite they take.
October 30, 2009 | 4:00 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
In the wake of the Great Deli Cover of 2009, I had a lunch meeting at Pico Kosher deli, which I had reviewed in a blog post yesterday.
I met Rabbi Daniel Korobkin there for lunch Thursday. The rabbi was waiting for me by the deli counter when I arrived, dressed in a dark suit and a bright blue-patterned tie, on his cell phone—which had an electric blue cover. He’s a friendly man, with a kind and mild face and an engaging, wide ranging intellect: a degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins, rabbinical school, and now he’s working toward his PhD at UCLA in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. For that he’s been studying Arabic for three years, and he was able to read a sign across the street written in Farsi above a Persian rug store. Farsi, while not a Semitic language, is written in Arabic script.
“What’s it say?” I ask.
“Persian Rugs,” he translates.
Our conversation was wide ranging and off the record—just a chance for me to connect to the leader of a major school, Yavne, and congregation. I did swallow hard, though, when the rabbi told me he has 10 children, from 3 to 25. He himself is 45 years old.
We talked over chicken soup and matzo balls, a turkey pastrami sandwich (mine) and a PKD Special, pastrami, cole slaw and Russian dressing (his). PKD’s pastrami is not cut as thickly or as deftly as Langer’s, the top non-kosher pastrami in LA, or the world. But the sandwiches are high quality, the bread soft, and fresh, and the service swift.
It was the lunch rush, made somewhat busier by the fact that several people came by to say hello to the rabbi. That’s PKD—as much a good, solid deli as it is a place to feel part of the large, boisterous family that is LA Jewry….
October 27, 2009 | 7:03 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Last week The Jewish Journal featured an excerpt from David Sax’s new book, “Save the Deli.” Sax did a worldwide tour of delis, at great expense to his love life and his waistline, and at the end of it named L.A. “The Best Deli City in America.” For a Jewish paper in LA, that’s a pretty good lead—Jews take their food and their delis seriously.
When I got the advance copy of Sax’s book, I called the publisher and arranged for a reprint. They were stingy with the word count, because evidently this is a boom time for publishing, what with hundreds of thriving book review sections vying to give free publicity to every book out there, and the impossibility of going online and reading excerpts for free at amazon.com…. in any case, they held firm at 1500 words.
We chopped off the part of Sax’s LA chapter that dealt with L.A.‘s numerous family owned delis and retained a self-contained part that described Hollywood’s connection to the delicatessen—a section we assumed would have wider appeal. Dan Kacvinski ordered a pastrami sandwich from Langer’s, shot it like it was a supermodel, and we figured we had a winning cover package…until the letters came.
Instead of pleasing a hungry audience, we enraged our kosher readers. Not only did the excerpt fail to mention any kosher delis, we threw a full color photo of treif—non-kosher meat—right in their faces. Here was a kinder example of the outrage, this one from Rabbi Daniel Korobkin:
Reading your cover story on the great delis of Los Angeles only filled me
with sadness. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good pastrami on rye as much as
the next guy. But this article reminded me of the blatant and unabashed
post-modern and post-religious Judaism that is glorified these days by your
periodical. There wasn’t even an attempt to mask the fact that not a single
deli highlighted in your article is kosher. As a matter of fact, the word
“kosher” appears only once in the whole article – when referring to the old
New York delis that L.A. celebrities remember fondly when eating at their
chic treif delis of today.
There were two ironies in this article: One, that unbeknownst to your
author, one of the great delis of L.A. is a kosher deli on Pico Boulevard –
“Pico Kosher Deli,” in fact – a deli that I grew up with and which has only
gotten better with age.
The other is that your author attests that for Hollywood types, the
delicatessen offers a “dose of reality” to budding actors who are regularly
confronted with a “state of fakery, where everyone wears their masks.” Of
course, what he forgot to mention is that a non-kosher “kosher style” deli
is itself is a fakery of the old Kosher Delicatessen, the one that served
just as delectable pastrami, but from a cow that was ritually slaughtered
according to a thousands-year-old tradition, and which was then kashered
with the coarse kosher salt that the A-list would only recognize as the
stuff sprinkled on their pretzels in their sadly non-kosher counterfeits.
Maybe in his next edition of his book on great delis, your author might
recommend to all those seeking some dose of authenticity: order a side of
Judaism with that pastrami sandwich.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Hancock Park, Los Angeles
Several other letter writers mentioned Pico Kosher Deli as well. The fact is, Sax did neglect it. It’s not in his the excerpt we picked; it’s not at all in his book. I noticed he left it out, but didn’t think to add anything to the cover beyond the excerpt we had decided to run. The cover story wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive survey of L.A. delis—but that doesn’t lessen the slight to those Jews who observe the laws of kashrut, and who love Pico Kosher Deli.
Had he gone there, what would Sax have made of PKD, as its fans call it?
I’ve eaten there many times, at least a dozen over the years. PKD is a Pico-Robertson institution, and the only true kosher deli in all of Los Angeles. Since most of its clientele keeps kosher and wouldn’t eat anywhere else, there’s no point in comparing it to other delis in L.A. Taken on its own terms, it is quite good, if not without flaws.
The place is small, plain and cozy. It is located in a heavily Jewish neighborhood, and the kids and yeshiva students, the kipa-clad professionals and moms-in-wigs who frequent the place keep it bustling and familiar. A deli counter runs along one side, full of the familiar meats and salads. Tables take up the next room, and often you’ll need to wait amid the cacophany of phone orders, children’s screams, and loud, friendly hellos for a table to clear.
In the world of Jewish dining establishments, I find that because a place feels at home, the proprietors feel free to treat you as family would—that is, they may ignore you and let you fend for yourself. There’s never a warm greeting, a “great to see you”—because, hey, we see you all the time, and who are you anyway, the Pope? No—you’re just family.
I like that attitude. Then again, I lived in Israel and got very used to it. But for furst timers, PKD’s rough and tumble may not feel welcoming. Trust me, it is. Grab a seat before that mom with four kids leaps ahead of you in line, and don’t b shy about flagging down a waiter or busboy for the menu. In a big Jewish family, delicacy and shyness gets you bupkis. Which means nothing.
Kosher Jews will not eat milk and meat together. They will not cook it or serve it or even think of it together. So there are kosher meat restaurants, and kosher dairy restaurants. PKD is a meat restaurant. You go there for the pastrami and corned beef and chicken soup. There will be no bagels and cream cheese, because there will be no cream cheese. No blintzes, either. Asking for sour cream with your borscht is like asking an Italian waiter for parmesan on your seafood pasta. You won’t get it, and you’ll just show your ignorance.
PKD’s pastrami, served on very fresh rye bread, is a fine and generous sandwich. Kosher meats are soaked and salted—again, by Jewish law—so beef and lamb can be less juicy than non-kosher meat. But PKD’s sandwiches, when warm, are classic examples of Jewish deli. The pastrami has a peppery bite that obviates the need for the deli mustard. Here’s my take on the other PKD food I’ve tried:
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls or Noodles: This is a very light gold broth, lightly fatty, tasting of carrot, onion and salt. It isn’t the best of your life, and far from the worst. I’ve stopped by PKD many a time to by a quart for a sick friend (or wife), and it always does the trick. The matzo balls are some of the best in town, really.
Knishes: heated in the microwave, they are merely fine. Yonah Schimmel’s in New York is the gold standard, substantial yet light—and these aen’t close. But slather on some of that mustard, close your eyes, and you can believe you’re in New York, if not on 132 E. Houston Street.
Turkey Sandwich: They have several varieties: turkey pastrami, smoked turkey, Mexican turkey—the last of which I haven’t tried. Of these all go for the pastrami. It has the most flavor, and if you top it with some cole slaw, you’ll almost feel you’re getting your cholesterol quotient for the day.
Hot Dogs: These are not Hebrew National, which are not kosher enough for PKD’s certification. They lack the garlic fatty spurt I remember in kosher dogs of yore, but maybe I’m mis-remembering. On a cool day, they are still a comforting bite.
Pickles: Yes, and they are fine. Homemade? I don’t think so. But perfectly adequate.
The Israeli food here—bourekas, hummous, Israeli salad—is forgettable, easily outdone by Haifa across the street and Nagila down the block. People love the roast chicken, and the stuffed cabbage, both of which come in huge portions. But on plate after plate what you see are those sandwiches, and by any measure, kosher or not, they are worth ordering.
As for the aforementioned service, you’ll acclimate. My advice in kosher restaurants is to engage the server, treat them like your sister or brother who was nice enough to get up from the table and bring you something from the fridge. Don’t expect them to bend over backwards—they’re family.
Visit Pico Kosher Deli by clicking here.
October 22, 2009 | 7:56 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Food crosses boundaries. We all have appetites, we all have a genetic compulsion to look at what’s on someone else’s plate, and most of us are willing to try anything once. One taste leads to another, and before you know it there is Peruvian sushi and lattes in Koreatown and boba in London. Food can be a fence between peoples—the laws of kashrut are a perfect example of that, keeping Jews away from others’ dinner tables—but it can also be a bridge: look at the way delis and bagels have introduced people to Jewish culture. What food can’t be is controlled. Cuisines are a living thing: changeable, malleable, constantly in flux. One year tomatoes are as much a part of Italian cuisine as poi, the next year—1492—to be exact, they will start to define Italian cuisine.
And so, food historians may one day look back on 2009 as a revolutionary year in American Jewish food. Why? A column we picked up from Mark Pearlman on JInsider provides a clue: Maneshewitz, the iconic Ashkenazic kosher food company, has been bought by Sephardic Jews. Alain Bankier and Paul Bensabat, along with a third financial partner, have taken over a holding company that includes Manischewitz, Rokeach, Goodman’s, Cohen’s, Ratner’s brands among others. These are the brands that have come to define kosher food in America: Ashkenazic—that is, with origins in the foods and cuisines of Eastern Europe—stodgy, bland, spiceless. For generations their products—borscht and gefilte fish in a jar, matzos in a box, frozen blintzes and knishes—have populated the shelves of supermarket kosher sections and sat on our holiday tables.
But guess what? These guys are Sephardic, with roots in North Africa. They can see far beyond the gefilte fish. They have no less a love for their Jewish heritage, but a much different experience of what that means, as Bensabat told Pearlman:
“Being Jewish is something very special, regardless of how religious you are. I am not Orthodox, but I am extremely proud of being Jewish and I have extremely strong feelings about being part of the community. My dad inspired me about the importance of being Jewish from the very beginning of my existence. I grew up in Casablanca in Morocco, so being a Jew in America I certainly appreciate the freedom and pride of
being Jewish without fear of consequence. Being Jewish is not just respecting the religion but also having the privilege of being part of The Chosen People, of an amazing community with a special bond and pact with God. We are unique and one-of-a kind and should always be proud to be Jewish.”
The new owners won’t change the surefire old favorites, but I assume they will expand the offerings to reflect their own beloved Sephardic Jewish foods, as well as foods that reflect Jewish tastes that have grown more international—Persian and Middle Eastern, for instance—and more demanding—for organic, humane and natural ingredients.
So think about Jewish food in America 20 years from now, after a couple of North African Jews have successfully reinvented what mass market kosher means. Jars of Moroccan boules de poissons, made from sustainably caught fish and spiced with red pepper and tumeric, on our Passover table; hamin—Sephardic cholent—made from organic, humanely raised beef cooking in the microwave, and matzo… well, matzo is matzo.
To read about the new Manischewitz, click here.