Refining the pastrami sandwich: Can a traditional deli serve healthy food

When thinking about the best grass-fed, humanely treated meat, the Jewish deli — with its iconic towering pastrami sandwich — is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. But Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, co-owners of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, are trying to change that.

“We didn’t want to sell meat that we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” Adelman said, explaining their decision several years ago to feature local, sustainable meat from Marin Sun Farms on Saul’s menu. Adelman and Levitt explained their rationale to a standing-room-only crowd at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley on Feb. 9.

Michael Pollan and Karen Adelman greet attendees at the Jewish deli discussion. photo/renna khuner-haber

The event, titled “Referendum on the Jewish Deli Menu (and Sustainability): Can a Retro Cuisine be Part of the Avant-Garde?” was originally intended to take place at Saul’s, but after 250 tickets were sold, it moved to the larger venue of the JCC around the corner.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food” and his latest, “Food Rules,” was one of the panelists. He was invited not only because many consider him to be the dominant figure in changing the national conversation about food, but because he is also a Saul’s Deli regular. He appeared with Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms, and Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic and author of “The Truth About Green Business.”

The panelists seemed to agree that there is a delicate balance between catering to old-timers to whom Jewish deli is comfort food and changing with the times. Saul’s has been trying to do the latter, a decision that has often put it at odds with traditional deli culture.

One thing you won’t find at Saul’s is Dr. Brown’s soda, a staple in Jewish delis across the country. Levitt and Adelman did away with the soda several years ago because it has high-fructose corn syrup.

Addressing Friend’s point that “you must offer an alternative that’s equally good,” Saul’s instead offers many of the same flavors, including its own version of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray (celery-flavored soda) — all made in-house.

Trying to be more seasonal is also a challenge for Saul’s. For example, people tend to think of pickles as a year-round food, but Levitt explained that the cucumbers that turn into Saul’s pickles are all grown during one season.

One of the reasons for the event was to allow the deli to discuss with customers future changes it may make.

The pastrami sandwich loomed large in the discussion. Rosenthal noted that the historical heft of the sandwich was a symbol of American Jews’ affluence in the postwar period, and the panelists asked whether people would be willing to pay more for smaller sandwiches that were made with higher-quality meat. Most in the audience said they would.

“If we got our pastrami from Sysco, it would be $2 a pound,” Levitt said. “Sustainably raised pastrami from Niman Ranch is $4.50 a pound, and grass-fed from Marin Sun Farms is $6 a pound.”

“We need to eat less meat,” Adelson added. “I know it seems strange for a pastrami-hawker to say that.”

Pollan said that as someone who eats meat only when he knows it came from a small farm with sustainable methods, he was pleased to see Saul’s making such efforts.

“I often get asked, ‘Isn’t this an elite movement?’ ” he said. “When sustainable food gets into the delis and taquerias, you extend the benefits to everyone. This is the democratization of the food movement.”

Kathy Khuner, a Berkeley resident and longtime Saul’s customer, said that while she noticed when Saul’s made the switch to grass-fed beef, she didn’t connect that her beloved pastrami sandwich would be affected; she’d assumed that the pastrami came pre-cured and pre-smoked from elsewhere. While she attended the discussion mostly because of her daughter’s passion for sustainable food, Khuner said she was impressed with what she heard.

“I didn’t know any of this, and it makes me want to support them more,” she said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."