But kosher slaughterhouses have their own problems. Noah Bernanmoff was blunt on the subject of kosher certifications: “Kosher food is laughable,” he said. “Especially meat. Kosher meat is a kind of scam. As a Jew I ascribe to tikkun olam, or taking care of one’s world. This means buying meat from places that take care of workers and slaughter humanely.”
It’s not just the kosher question. All the deli owners on the panel admitted to struggling with consumer expectations about what certain iconic dishes are. Take kugel, for example. To some diners kugel is a sweet noodle based dish with fruit. Others expect a savory potato-based dish. And then there are the non-Jewish customers being brought into the deli fold who wouldn’t know kugel from cacciatore.
Though most of these new deli operators try to accommodate the traditional tastes of older customers, they are anxious to forge ahead with their idea of what a deli is. According to Bernanmoff, “There is no tool to fight nostalgia. If you take the backlash personally, you forget the mission you’re on.”
Nostalgia for deli isn’t always about the food; sometimes it’s about the deli as a space. That includes the people who populate it, the hum of conversation, the feeling. Evan Bloom and his partner Leo Beckerman of Wise Sons Pop-up Deli in San Francisco have learned how to make a space for deli from scratch every Saturday in a Mission District coffee house, proving that deli is what you make it. “Every Saturday we create it,” he said. “That first Saturday, my partner Leo looked around and said, ‘it smells like a deli, it looks like a deli,’” adding, “We like to watch the tables change position throughout the day as people come in. They push them together, they pull them apart, and it’s a deli.”
I left the evening feeling hopeful about the future of the deli and excited by the passion of these new operators. It wasn’t until later that it struck me that the deli renaissance might be part of a cycle of death and rebirth in the food movement. It seems that just as we’re on the brink of losing something precious, forward thinking people start to work to save it. Think about the resurgence in gardening, canning, small-scale agriculture, locally raised meat, the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and the many new cheese artisans that have started up in recent years.
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