Yesterday, on the first day of our book tour to promote our new book, Secrets of a Jewish Mother, the Times ran an article entitled ‘Can the Jewish Deli Be Reformed?” by Julia Moskin. Here we were, Mom, Dad, Jill and I, brought together to our own New York City via planes and trains, and the Times was ruminating on the demise of New York delis. As it happened, so was I. It seemed b’shert, or “meant to be”. Jewish mothers don’t believe in coincidences.
Some of my earliest memories are sitting with my father at the Pastrami King on Queens Boulevard, across from the courthouse, savoring the sour pickles while my Dad implored me to stick with the half sours so I wouldn’t get canker sores in my mouth. Sorry Dad, those pickles were worth it. Or ordering the corned beef and pastrami combo on twin seeded rolls with mustard. Daddy always had a peculiar quirk of ordering a hot dog as our first course. We’d split a delicious “frankfurter”, with mustard only (ketchup on a hot dog incidentally, is a shanda, a disgrace), and then officially begin our meal. Meat, followed by more meat. Then the analysis would begin- was the pastrami sliced too thin or not thin enough? Was the sandwich thick enough to reflect the outrageous price, or were they getting chintzy behind the counter? Was the rye truly fresh, or just a little bit stale? These were the great questions we pondered.
It’s no “secret” that we Jews love food. Food is not only part of our everyday lives, it’s interwoven with our religious traditions. The celebration of Passover requires us to read the story of the exodus of Egypt but stop in the middle to have dinner. And what a meal it is! Volumes of cookbooks have been published just to help Jewish cooks navigate the strict rules of Passover while ensuring their family’s bellies are filled to capacity with tasty foods. Almost all Jewish holidays have special foods associated with them- for Chanukah we do latkes, or potato pancakes, on Purim we make hamantaschen, and on Simchas Torah, we celebrate with candied apples. We even share some of our special family recipes in the book.
Tonight Dad insisted that he needed to eat dinner at the Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue. He had been craving that fatty pastrami and corned beef for weeks, imagining his plate piled high with fatty, artery-clogging calories and loving every minute of it. As we walked across town together on this cool, spring evening, arm in arm toward the Carnegie, I thought about what the Times had written about delis. The article said that some socially conscious restauranteurs could no longer serve industrially produced meats, regardless of whether a rabbi had blessed them. One new deli owner restricted his menu to only one kind of salami that he personally produced, in order to ensure the quality he wanted his customers to enjoy. The more educated I have become about our food systems, the more I too, believe that we need to stay away from mass-produced meats of animals who are forced to live in inhumane circumstances before they are slaughtered.
I could have persuaded my father to stay away from the Carnegie. I could have informed him about the circumstances that most likely led to the pastrami on his plate and convinced him to eat something else. But I chose not to. Strolling with my father on the streets of New York is a pleasure rarely granted to me lately. Indulging in the traditional foods of his youth is a pleasure rarely granted to him these days as well. Tomorrow, we can discuss the deficiencies of our modern day food supply. But for right now, this moment, I need to watch my dad enjoy his pastrami and corned beef sandwich, on rye with mustard. While I munch on a very sour pickle.
Lisa Wexler, co-author, Secrets of a Jewish Mother April 14, 2010. The book was written by Lisa with her sister Jill Zarin and her mother Gloria Kamen.