Zane Caplansky’s plan was modest: to set up shop in a tiny kitchen at the back of a dive bar (the rent was dirt cheap) and serve hand-carved smoked meat sandwiches with homemade whole-grain mustard. So, a year and a half ago, the Toronto caterer and lifelong Jewish deli lover began dry-curing raw briskets with pickling salt and a dozen heady spices (including mustard seeds, fennel seeds, and Kashmiri chile powder) for two weeks, then smoking them over hickory.
I tasted Caplansky’s efforts as soon as he opened for business. Nicely salted, tenderized with ribbons of melted fat, and properly cut by hand into thick slabs so that the juices stayed in the meat (dry-cured meat should never be sliced by machine), it had a complex flavor that made me rethink the very concept of Jewish deli. Ten minutes into lunch on his second day and completely sold out, Caplansky was forced to make a decision: He could either order some pre-pickled pastrami from a purveyor or close down the sandwich operation, get back to curing, and try again two weeks later.
That Caplansky took the latter route is more than just an indication of his overnight success. He is one of a new breed of deli men who look to the farmers market, as well as to Katz’s, for inspiration, and whose primary goal is to bring Jewish deli back to the way it was a century ago, deepening both the tradition and the flavor.
The Jewish delicatessen has been vanishing for much of the past 50 years. In New York City alone, where this vigorous symbol of Ashkenazic cooking once flourished among immigrants, thousands have been reduced to a scattered few dozen. Cultural assimilation, dietary trends, and economics are largely to blame, but there’s also a culinary factor at work.
The Eastern European Jews who arrived on these shores from the 1880s onward initially made their offerings from scratch. But as the delicatessen business grew—fueled, in large part, by the new American obsession with the sandwich—more and more products came from outside. By the 1950s, deli owners could save money by replacing their homemade corned beef and pickles with substitutes made by companies like Hebrew National, Manischewitz, and Isaac Gellis. Liquid smoke replaced woodsmoke, injection-curing replaced dry-curing, and uniformity came to dominate the taste of Jewish deli food. It made sense, but there’s a reason old folks kvetch that deli just doesn’t taste the way it used to.
“The business has been stuck in a late-twentieth-century model,” explains Nick Zukin, co-owner of Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen, in Portland, Oregon. “Everything after the Second World War was about efficiency. But a hundred years ago, there had to be more variety.”
In 2006, Zukin, a food blogger with a baby face and a solid frame, had contacted Ken Gordon, a brash local restaurateur, originally from Queens, New York, with a proposal. There was no good pastrami in Portland. Would Gordon help him make some?
The duo set to work curing briskets in salt, sugar, and spices, then smoking them for eight hours over oak. They rented a booth one Sunday at a neighborhood farmers market, slapping their first steaming pastrami on the cutting board at 10 A.M. Before they knew it, all their briskets were gone. A week later, they doubled their output. That disappeared, too. People were literally trying to buy half-eaten sandwiches out of other customers’ hands.
Gordon and Zukin began featuring a delicatessen brunch at Gordon’s restaurant, Ken’s Place, on Saturdays. They made corned beef and tongue, pickles, knishes, bagels, rye bread, and rugelach, all in-house. It was so successful that by late 2007, they had shut Ken’s Place and opened Kenny & Zuke’s.
The people who work there are young, idealistic, and enthusiastic. Each morning, a trio of hippies roll tomorrow’s bagels by hand (the dough rests overnight), then dip the previous batch in malted water and bake them for breakfast. At night, Mathew Scaletta, a shaggy-haired 24-year-old who grew up canning fish in Alaska, preps and smokes the pastrami until it is dark red, with an intense, brackish tang and hints of peppery spice that meld perfectly with the rich marbling. The meat is steamed for close to three hours before being hand-cut to order and placed on Gordon and Zukin’s rye bread. Studded with kimmel (caraway) seeds and baked to a malty brown, the sourdough is dense and fragrant—a far cry from the homogenized loaves that most delicatessens pass off as rye. “I can buy other rye cheaper,” says Gordon. “But, damn, it’s good! Are we going to put our pastrami on a lesser rye? I don’t think so.”
Behind the new deli men’s refusal to compromise is a fiercely independent streak. Ignoring accepted wisdom, they have, most importantly, freed themselves from the New York mind-set that has resulted in delis everywhere being decorated like Times Square souvenir shops. The canned shtick and schmaltzy nostalgia—as well as the food—inevitably disappoint those searching for a replica of the idealized past they either experienced firsthand or through a grandparent’s recollections, or even picked up from Woody Allen’s films.
Despite Gordon’s New York provenance, you won’t find a single reference to the city on the menu or the walls at Kenny & Zuke’s. “We have never billed the place as a New York deli,” he says emphatically. “Never, ever. And we never will.” Although the food’s bedrock is the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, the egg cream sodas are made not with U-bet chocolate syrup but with Dagoba organic chocolate, which tastes deeper and richer. A recipe from a Winnipeg blogger yields knishes filled with creamy mashed potatoes and crowned with glistening caramelized onions. The house-cured gravlaks, puffy latkes with a fresh ginger applesauce, sashimi-soft pickled tongue, and a noodle kugel that tastes like a creamy cinnamon bun: This is food at the top of the deli game.
The artisanal philosophy is slowly spreading to delis across America, including Saul’s, in Berkeley (co-owned by a Chez Panisse alum); Weiss Bakery and Delicatessen, outside Las Vegas (a mom-and-pop operation); and Jimmy & Drew’s 28th Street Delicatessen, in Boulder (where they smoke their own salmon and render their own schmaltz). All have a certain ethnic pride, outwardly referring to themselves as Jewish delicatessens, something many delis have been reluctant to do, fearing they’ll alienate Gentile customers. They also exhibit a strong sense of community. Days before opening last year, Zane Caplansky, who was born Zane Caplan, legally reverted to his great-grandfather’s surname as a way of reaffirming his own identity.
“I’m proud of being a Jew and of cooking Jewish food,” he says. He recently moved his operation out of the bar, opening a bright new delicatessen in Kensington Market, the historic birthplace of Toronto’s Jewish community. Caplansky swells with pride at being the culinary leader of a downtown Jewish cultural revival. He has reached out to local synagogues to host events and has expanded the menu to include kishke, corned beef, and other classics, all made from scratch.
“Part of that pride is capturing the authentic flavors of this food, and you can only do that if it’s handmade,” Caplansky tells me. “Bringing it back to the way it was once done, well, that’s the highest achievement you can expect in this business.”
David Sax, a freelance writer from Toronto, is the author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen, to be published this month. Still hungry? Visit his website, savethedeli.com.