Although I’ve yet to try either of them, I keep hearing about the Impossible and Beyond Burgers, meatless substitutes for America’s most iconic sandwich.
As someone who thinks a lot about beef — albeit of the cured, spiced and smoked kind, the type that gets slathered in mustard and thrust between two spongy slices of fresh rye, preferably dished up by a scowling counterman or waiter in a Jewish deli — it seems inevitable that pastrami, corned beef and tongue will soon arrive in sci-fi sounding, vegan varieties. This could help reverse decades of decline in the consumption of these among both health-conscious and environmentally-friendly Jews, restoring the deli to its former glory.
Yet the idea that we are heading for a new golden age of the Jewish deli seems a bit pie (or cheesecake) in the sky. For those Jews who scrupulously keep the dietary laws, the prospect of meat substitutes that have an increasingly “authentic” taste makes the whole system of kashrut seem irrelevant. When the enticing flavors of treife foods can be reproduced with kosher vegetarian ingredients, we may witness even haredi Jews chowing down on “ham and cheese” made from Potentiality Pork, or whatever the next company will be called.
Even more importantly, futuristic Jewish food is in stark tension with Jewish nostalgia. It’s been said our culture is so driven by nostalgia that we are wistful for time periods while still living through them. So much of American Jewish life is based on a rosy view of the past, focused initially on the immigrant generation and then on the second and third generations who moved out of the urban ghettos but maintained Jewish accents and cultural interests.
For those Jews who scrupulously keep the dietary laws, the prospect of meat substitutes that have an increasingly “authentic” taste makes the whole system of Kashrut seem irrelevant.
The appeal of the Jewish deli was about much more than just the food. It was a gathering place for the Jewish community, a secular equivalent to the synagogue. Lombard Street in East Baltimore was dubbed “Corned Beef Row” for the delis that sprang up to serve the burgeoning Jewish population in that district. Attmann’s, still going strong, dates from 1915, while now-shuttered delis like Sussman and Lev’s, Mandell’s, and Awrach and Perl attracted the downtown shoppers. Nates and Leon’s, along with Ballow’s, opened in the newer Jewish neighborhoods during the interwar period, as upwardly mobile Jews moved inexorably northwest.
By bringing together the offspring of Jews from a host of different countries in Eastern Europe, the deli fostered the creation of a unitary American Jewish identity. But delis also had a powerful allure for non-Jews, especially African-Americans who moved into formerly Jewish neighborhoods and made eateries like Attmann’s into African-American hangouts as much as Jewish ones. Lenny’s, which closed its Lombard Street location in 2017 but still has a bustling location in Owings Mills, caters to a diverse clientele while still dishing up matzoh ball soup, pastrami, bagels and lox, and so on.
Contemporary Jewish delis throughout the country, from the General Muir in Atlanta to Wexler’s in L.A.., serve a mostly non-Jewish clientele. In the Baltimore area, I’m still trying to figure out the popularity of Deli-ish, a “modern New York-style deli” in Dundalk that gives top billing to its corned beef and crab cakes, but also offers mozzarella sticks, fried pickles, and mac and cheese. Yes, Suburban House, which closed in 2017, has been replaced to some extent by the Essen Room as the hangout for those seeking Ashkenazic comfort food. But these days, it is principally the kosher restaurants — from Goldberg’s Bagels to David Chu’s to Yesh (the new Israeli-style eatery in Pikesville) — where local Jews tend to meet and greet.
As even the most iconic Jewish foods, from bagels to blintzes, have become mainstream in American culture, I wonder how much it matters whether pastrami is really spiced and smoked or, by contrast, concocted in a test tube. During the first half of the 20th century, in both kosher and non-kosher delis, the age-old but time-consuming process of curing deli meat in wooden barrels gave way by the 1940s to pumping it with brine, prompting deli mavens to cry foul. But corned beef, pastrami and tongue have all survived.
No doubt these pickled meats will still exist for future generations, even if the delis of the future serve no animal products at all to their predominantly non-Jewish customers. By then, how much sentimental yearning will our descendants possess for a Jewish identity based on fressing beef?
Ted Merwin is the author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” (NYU Press). He lives in Pikesville with his wife and three daughters.