Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pastrami rubbed the wrong way

Why does this passage rub me the wrong way?

Matt Neal, with his wife, Sheila, opened Neal’s Deli in 2008, a deli “in the urban and European tradition,” where he makes pastrami in a refrigerator-size smoker, serving it with sides like vinegar-softened coleslaw and local beets spiked with horseradish. Still, “We don’t pretend to be a Jewish deli, or a New York deli,” he said. “This is just the kind of good, real food I decided I wanted to eat for lunch every day.”

Maybe it's just post-Palin paranoia, but any opposition of New-York-Jewish on the one hand and "good" and "real" on the other... But more to the point, what exactly makes a deli both "urban" and "European," if not a combination of New York (or, OK, Montreal) and shtetl roots? Yes, of course, Ashkenazi cuisines have roots in other cuisines, but who are we kidding here? I mean, maybe this particular Southern man's preferred lunch happens to be something out of New York Jewish cuisine. Why is that a problem? These things happen - I can't get enough of Dos Toros, a San Franciscan-Mexican establishment, and I'm not remotely Californian or Mexican.

Upon further reflection, it occurs to me that this chef is merely trying not to take credit for replicating a cuisine to which he doesn't believe he's a rightful heir. If so, I'd say he should claim away. I say this because the only cuisine I'm capable of replicating successfully as a home cook is Italian. (Tonight's pizza was most excellent. Note to Matt: sugar in the dough did wonders.)

My real complaint, however, is that I've been meaning to try Mile End every weekend now for a month or so, and every time it gets written up somewhere more prominent than the last, that's an extra half-hour wait for a table.


Matt said...

I wonder if, by "not a Jewish deli", they meant "it's not kosher". (I don't know if it's kosher, but that might have been how I'd take it, in the right context.)

Phoebe said...


Given the number of self-proclaimed Jewish delis that aren't kosher (I'd guess most are not), this seems unlikely. Plus, it doesn't explain what he means about "New York."

PG said...

Given the number of self-proclaimed Jewish delis that aren't kosher (I'd guess most are not)

Huh, I didn't know that; I'd assumed that if something was proclaiming itself specifically to be a Jewish deli, it was kosher. Certainly the famous ones in NYC all seem to be kosher.

I think Neal was being self-deprecating in saying We don't pretend to be.

Phoebe said...


I'm shocked, shocked, that you believe the reverse of something I've posted!

Rather than disagree right back, let me agree. You're right that I, given my own background, have no way of knowing what "Jewish deli" means to people who aren't Jewish. I'd have assumed those less in-the-know wouldn't have thought about it either way re: kosher, but again I defer to your expertise.

As for self-deprecating, I think this is kind of what I was getting at re: him not thinking he's heir to a specific culinary tradition. Of course, this would make him not so much heir to a specific tradition of self-deprecation, either.

Mark Cohen said...

I don't know if he was being self-deprecating. I think he was just being modest. But the south has its own tradition of self-deprecation that sets a trap for those who assume a southern drawl means being slow. And at least one Saul Bellow character adopted it as his preferred method of self-deprecation. See Cousin Mendy in "Cousins" ("the rube shrewdie was a type he dearly loved.")

Like your blog for some time now.