To many, the Jewish deli is synonymous with heart-clogging gluttony, conjuring images of corned beef stacked 10 inches high on rye bread, and plump meat- and potato-filled knishes.
Yet Jewish delis around North America have recently been going in a healthier, more environmentally friendly direction. In doing so, they are aiming to adhere to principals of sustainability: Trimming their product sizes to reduce waste, and relying on mostly fresh, local items to lower gas use and boost taste.
“If we don’t create an incentive, the deli’s going to die,” said Noah Bernamoff, 27, a former law school student with a knack for smoking meat who opened the Mile End delicatessen in January in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Owners are making these changes in hopes of breathing new life into delis, which have been waning in numbers as Jews move out of cities and Americans shift to healthier fare. These sustainable delis have won some praise and loyal customers, but they’ve also alienated some of their longtime clients by eliminating classic foods and raising prices.
Mile End, which often has lunchtime lines jutting out the front door, has a one-page menu — kept short because it uses mostly local meat, cheese and condiments. The furthest produced item is the poppy seed bagels, made from scratch 460 miles away in Montreal’s “Mile End” neighborhood from which the deli receives its name.
Caplansky’s opened in September in Toronto, using only meat from local suppliers and bread from the nearby Silverstein’s Bakery. It makes all soups from scratch, with “no instant mixes,” said owner Zane Caplansky.
“We try to keep everything as local as possible,” he said.
Saul’s in Berkeley, Calif., which has operated as a deli since the 1950s, recently started using local, grass-fed beef for its brisket, corned beef and cabbage rolls. While it’s been making such changes for the past 10 years, only recently did it make an effort to advertise them.
“These changes are best done incrementally, without making too much of a fuss,” said David Sax, the author of the recently published “Save the Deli,” a half-travelogue, half sociological look at the world’s few remaining Jewish delis. “First and foremost, the food should taste good.”
Environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike will taste the difference of a local, in-season tomato, versus one shipped from afar and laden with pesticides, said Sax. Yet he felt it would take a while for customers to adjust to their favorite traditional items being removed from menus in the name of sustainability — potentially costing delis business in the meantime.
Lloyd Bergon, 65, a New York City native and lifetime deli-goer, sat in Mile End at noon on a recent Tuesday in March, digging into a freshly sliced smoked brisket sandwich.
“It’s a small menu and an appealing menu,” said Bergon, a recent retiree who was lured to the other end of Brooklyn for the fresh meats. It was the tastiness of the food at the deli — which claims to be the only one in New York City to smoke, salt and cure its own meat — that brought him there.
Sometimes, adhering to the principles had made for unhappy customers.
Saul’s, for example, removed salami from the menu because co-owner Karen Adelman said that the buyers could not pinpoint where it was coming from — and did not want to bring it back until they did. The deli also eliminated the classic Dr. Brown’s soda after the onetime small business was purchased by Coca-Coca, opting instead for in-house sodas with flavors that include lime, pomegranate and celery.
The moves caused uproar among some customers, many of whom grew up with pastrami and Dr. Brown’s as their quintessential comfort food and thirst quencher. In response, the deli hosted a panel in February — whose speakers included famous food writer and Saul’s customer Michael Pollan — discussing how and why to introduce sustainability to even the toughest critics used to large deli menus with all their classic favorites.
But Bernamoff felt his newly-opened status gave the deli greater leeway in the products that they could offer.
“Because I’m starting fresh, I’m not alienating customers,” he said.
Some in the food field, including Pollan and the owners of Saul’s, argue that sustainability is a cultural norm for delis.
The origins of the Jewish deli “are scrappy and sustainable,” said Adelman as justification for the alterations the deli made to many of its traditional items. “They got supersized like everything else in America.”
Co-owner Peter Levitt, who previously worked as a chef at the famous gourmet health restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., pointed out that Jews in the 1920s were probably not “eating a 10-inch sandwich.”
Traditionally Jewish cooking is about thriftiness and resourcefulness, said Levitt. Before sustainability as it’s known today was introduced, Jews made an effort to produce small portions and purchase only seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Though the road to sustainability may be rocky, Adelman remained optimistic that it can re-energize delis, especially among younger generations who are starting to form their own traditions.
“Food is always being reinvented,” said Adelman.