I’m a New York Jew. I grew up on delicatessen food. Bagels with a shmear for breakfast. Pastrami on rye for lunch out with my mother. Bagels with cream cheese and jelly for school lunches. Chopped liver on crackers. Kreplach for dinner or to Katz’s for a midweek meal.
Sunday brunch meant platters of lox, whitefish, sable and sturgeon. It meant heaping mounds of cream cheese — cream cheese plain, cream cheese with chives, cream cheese with bits of lox. It meant bowls of herring, plain, pickled and with sour cream. It meant loosening your belt and walking around in a contented stupor for hours afterward.
Most of all, it meant family.
Over the years, culinary habits have changed. Even as bagels became a ubiquitous part of the eating landscape, mouth-watering pastrami and corned beef in all their fatty deliciousness have fallen from favor. Lox costs an arm and fin.
Eating and buying food at the deli is now more a splurge than a taken-for-granted weekly ritual. The era of the deli is passing. New York’s famed Carnegie Deli has closed its doors and LA’s Canter’s deli has reduced its hours between 3 and 8 a.m.
So, you can imagine my delight at discovering Saul’s when we moved to Berkeley a few years ago. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that one of the key buying points of our new home was its proximity to a Jewish deli.
Now my husband and I head over to Saul’s each week. Without glancing at a menu, we order our usual — a belt-loosening, diet-busting, juicy Reuben and a side of equally caloric-laden potato latkes. Each week I have to beg for extra applesauce. You would think I was asking for gold bullion.
Also, once a week, a girlfriend and I go to Saul’s for lunch. She orders a turkey sandwich — with mayo. (I know, mayo, but what can you do? She’s not Jewish.) I order nova and a bagel. Each week, a waiter says, “Huh?” and then, “Oh, you mean lox.” “No, I mean nova,” I reiterate.
We debate the issue for a while. He goes to the kitchen, comes back and confirms, yes, they have nova, and tells me what I already know, nova is indeed different from lox. Three minutes later, he returns to tell me they are out of bagels. How does a deli run out of bagels?
And to add culinary insult to deli injury, Saul’s no longer offers nova, just lox. What’s up with that?
I always wanted to be a “regular” at a restaurant. And I am at Saul’s. But if the people there do know me, I fear they don’t exactly like me. Oh, I am pleasant enough, but I am persistent.
In addition to that weekly “nova, not lox” debate, there’s the constant battle to claim the 75-cent refund on the pickle jars we return. I have a child with a pickle addiction. She goes through three jars of sour pickles each week. She would, in fact, go through more if I would further indulge this eating — and drinking — yes, drinking habit. My daughter was born in Las Vegas, but she drinks pickle juice like a child of Hester Street at the turn of the 20th century.
One day we brought back a shopping bag full of clean jars, only to be told they issue a refund for no more than three jars at a time. The guy behind the counter announced this “policy” after taking away all 15 jars. Policy, shmolicy! A pickle jar refund by any number should be an entitlement, not a debate, nu? We protested but left with just $2.25 to show for our pickle devotion.
Our pickle problems don’t end at the counter. When we dine at Saul’s, the waiter provides three pickles. My pickle-a-holic daughter always requests more. In the hustle and bustle of the moment, the request is frequently forgotten. My daughter politely persists. (Like I said, she is a pickle-a-holic.) Eventually more pickles appear. But by then the mood at the table has, a-hum, soured. Apparently, pickles are as preciously guarded as extra applesauce for latkes.
But Saul’s is like family. You can complain endlessly about the mistreatment, but where else can you go for kasha varnishkes with a touch of grief on the side?
And the truth is I don’t go to Saul’s for the food. I go to there because it’s a shrine to the past, my past. I look around and see multiple grandmas on walkers with their children and grandchildren impatiently trailing behind. I see grandpas with hearing aids and grandchildren annoyed, repeating answers to questions for the second and third time. My grandparents are long gone. My parents, too. So these proxy deli relations are all I’ve got.
At Saul’s, I silently celebrate the people I loved, and the food and lifestyle I lived. I also go with a prayer for tomorrow, a tomorrow where I hope my children will lovingly endure deli dining with future old me, where they will walk slowly beside my walker and talk loudly so I can hear what they are saying.