Sax And Deli Porn

David Sax outside Katz's, the famous Lower East Side deli

Save the Deli, Canadian author David Sax’s pean to traditional Jewish European cuisine, is essentially deli porn. Porn in the literary sense, since there aren’t any close up color photos of the food in the book. One would be hard pressed to use any other term, what with Sax describing or referring to menu items throughout the book with exclamations such as:

” But the other was an artery-slaying taste sensation. The outer layer of crisp, oily skin gave way to a creamy membrane of sweet fat, which bathed the smooth, earthy liver in an undercurrent of richness that was almost unfathomable.” (Stuffed goose necks)

“Chunky, with a bubbly, almost champagne consistency, fat hunks of garlic, eggs, and flakes of flesh greeted my mouth as I watched Jeremy inhale his piece.” (P’tcha)

“…a glorious, debauched, greasy invocation of pure animal savagery. Heaven.” (A Montreal smoked meat sandwich)

“Each was colored a luscious mandarin orange and glistened with the fatty remnants of the sugar and salt cure…” (Smoked salmon sides)

“I felt guilty for cutting into this beautiful thing, though callous greed was soon rewarded with little flecks of mashed potato and moist corned beef with just a hint of spice. I devoured…” (A knish).

“The flavor was perfect…the cure highlighted the meat like a fine fragrance on a beautiful woman.” (Corned beef)

“But as we began smearing whole-grain mustard on pieces of warm pletzel (onion roll) and applying the meat, our apprehension evaporated into exclamations of pleasure.” (Broust, or smoked pastrami)

The book is missing these kind of color close ups.

Or maybe I just have a dirty mind. In any case, the great thing about this book is that beyond pickled meat aficionados getting their kicks, all readers benefit from Sax’s obvious and genuine heartfelt love for his subject. Sax shares with us what Roger Bennett (author of Bar Mitzvah Disco) refers to as “The Odyssey but with Rolaids,” his tale of crisscrossing large swaths of North America and visits to London, Paris, Brussels and Krakow to eat at and meet the owners and staff of countless delis. The fact that deli runs deep in Sax’s veins, lends his cri de coeur of “Save the Deli” (also the name of his website) authenticity and gravity. One just worries about all those artery-clogging substances that must have been deposited in those veins as a result of the author’s fressing non-stop for a year and a half on schmaltzy and salty Jewish homestyle cooking. Not to mention that Sax was always a big deli eater, and continues to down pastrami sandwiches at every book tour stop he makes (just follow the blog on his website to see which town he is in and at which deli he is eating). All we can do is wish him gezuntheit and hope he has good genes, or at least good cholesterol meds.

As per usual, I enjoyed Save the Deli more for its historical and cultural commentary than for its culinary descriptions, though it’s hard not to get caught up in all that deli porn. In particular, I enjoyed the insider glimpse Sax provides into the business side of delis and the difficulties facing their owners as economic factors conspire against them. One definitely comes away from reading the book understanding the historical, demographic, economic and health/dietary trends that have led to the demise of so many of these kind of restaurants and take out counters (there are now only a couple of hundred delis in the US, down from thousands a century ago). Especially poignant is how the owners and customers themselves tell much of this story in their own words, with Sax providing additional explanation and context.

Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray tonic. A classic deli drink you don't find elsewhere very often.

Sax may be a stickler for good deli meat, but I am one for proper citations. So, I was disappointed that the book fails to include neither notes nor a bibliography, both things I believe Sax should have provided to substantiate his historical statements and document the quotations he includes from interviews with not only the deli owners, but also famous deli-loving food writers, politicians and entertainers. I can tell that Sax wanted his narrative to have an easy going, intimate feel to it. But that doesn’t mean his editors and publishers should have given him a pass on the requirements of good scholarship. I’m thankful, though, that Sax did include a thorough directory of the delis he visited and researched worldwide. I plan to take it with me on my travels. Although not a fanatic like the author, I do occasionally crave a pastrami and kosher dill pickle fix.

There is something very touching about a young person so devoted as Sax is to perpetuating traditional Jewish culture. It is true that there are many other aspects of Jewish culture that need preserving – probably even more so than slabs of brisket, but it cannot be ignored that the way to many Jews’ hearts is through their stomachs. I have a lot of confidence in David Sax. He and other members of his generation, be they childless or “pastrami mommies” and daddies, will Save the Deli yet.

Watch the trailer for the book (that’s right, trailers are no longer just for movies). In deference to Sax’s – and my nationality – I am putting the Canadian one first.

An interesting aside: Speaking of deli porn, here’s a story of deli and porn. It turns out that back in 2004 the former porn king, publisher of Screw Magazine for over three decades, Al Goldstein, got a job showing customers to their tables at the famous 2nd Avenue Deli after he lost all his money, became homeless and was convicted of spousal abuse. Apparently, this new gig suited Goldstein just fine. “I love it because I’ve always preferred food to sex,” he professed. Click here to read a full article on this bit of deli trivia not included in Sax’s book.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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