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.
(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.
That means customers wouldn’t be able to order things like borscht or half-sour pickles year-round. That wouldn’t be a big deal to deli owners or Jewish homemakers of a century ago, before Americans became used to finding Chilean blueberries on supermarket shelves the middle of winter.
“My bubbe, if you talked to her about having cold borscht in the winter, she’d have thrown you out of the house,” Friend said.
Saul’s owners and their eco-celebrity panelists – all of whom are regulars at the deli – clearly hope to inspire change throughout the dwindling world of Jewish delis.
“It ripples out slowly from here, bounces to the East Coast, and makes its way to the Midwest,” Friend suggested.
Will it work? Will nostalgic Jewish diners still run for comfort food to a place that touts grass-fed pastrami sandwiches and free-range chicken soup?
Is Saul’s in fact firing the matzah ball that will be heard around the world – or at least from Fairfax to the Upper West Side?
And, as panel moderator Evan Kleiman asked at one point, what will Saul’s servers say to the woman who wants borscht in February?
“Well,” Pollan suggested, “people are accustomed to taking abuse from waiters in Jewish delis.”
Postscript: Saul’s held a follow-up panel in May 2011, featuring owners of three other delis from around the country with similar artisanal, sustainable philosophies. You can read my blog post about it here.