Illustration by Sasha Plotnikova/Torontoist.
Freelance journalist and native Torontonian David Sax received death threats from New York, blushing gratitude from LA, and lots of chatter from cities in between, all due to his newly released book, Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Within its pages, Sax passes judgement on which towns have the best delis (hence all the civic pride), but his real concern is how these emporiums of comfort food are rapidly disappearing from our culinary landscape, disconnecting Jews and the population at large from a vital aspect of Jewish culture. During his travels across North America and Europe, Sax had moments of despair (his working title for a time was The Death of the Deli), but he met too many dedicated and passionate people, fighting to keep the tradition alive, to give up that easily.
The Caplansky’s Combo: smoked turkey breast, smoked meat, tongue, chopped liver, and grilled salami with rye bread, tomatoes, and onion. For one.
Sax’s parents are originally from the smoked meat mecca of Montréal, but they moved to Toronto in the ’70s, as many anglophone Jews did after the passing of Bill 101, which made French the official language in the province of Québec. Once here, the family began making weekly visits to Yitz’s Delicatessen on Eglinton, where David’s love of hearty deli fare blossomed. After high school, Sax went back to his parents’ hometown to attend McGill University where he researched and wrote a term paper on deli for his Sociology of Jews in North America class—which, unbeknownst to him at the time, would become his debut tome.
Save the Deli chronicles Sax’s odyssey driving from city to city and stopping up to four times a day to sit, eat, and talk with owners, cutters, cooks, waitstaff, and bussers at iconic Jewish delis (e.g. Katz’s in Manhattan, est.1888; Schwartz’s in Montréal, est.1928), as well as some of the most obscure. Everywhere he goes, he’s met with colourful characters whose stories depict a troubling trend: rising rents, skyrocketing food costs, and a general population eschewing high-calorie foods have forced many out of business. In between stories of woe, however, were flickers of hope, and Sax came across several places which are thriving, one of which we can proudly call our own.
Top: The fabled kishke, derma stuffed with matzo meal, vegetables, schmaltz, and spices. Roasted and served with smoked meat gravy. Bottom: Latkes with applesauce. Photo by Marcelo Ithurralde.
Caplansky’s at College and Bathurst has been packing it in since the day they opened. Owner Zane Caplansky prides himself on curing and smoking his briskets in house, and would rather close temporarily (and has!) instead of rushing the process and serving an inferior product. Sax says it’s places like this that give him hope. “What can I say folks,” he wrote on his blog. “To those of us who want to save the deli, there’s no better sign that [sic] a deli that literally gets eaten out of product.”
To do our part in this crusade, Torontoist braved the line-ups and sampled as many dishes as possible, including a Caplansky’s Combo (selection of deli meats; $18), crispy potato latkes ($4), and kishke (a delicious kind of Jewish haggis; $6). Caplansky is famous for his smoked meat, but for us, the standouts were the tongue, grilled salami, and kishke, which was like savoury Thanksgiving stuffing, bound in a sausage casing, and covered in gravy and smoked meat.
But Sax’s work is far from being only about the food. As he writes in the opening pages, “this is a book about the Jewish experience, told via Jews’ most recognized contribution to the American table.” Toward the end of his travels, Sax makes the difficult journey to Krakow, Poland, which was the “cradle of Jewish civilization” prior to World War II. It’s here that he explains why saving the deli is becoming so difficult. “Every other immigrant group will always have a source for their authentic flavors,” he writes. “Theirs”—Jews’—”is the food of a partially destroyed people, three generations or more removed from its source. Delis are cooking from the fading memories of a time and place that no longer exist.”
We predict future generations will have David Sax to thank for keeping this important, and delicious, link to Jewish culture intact.
All photos by Kaori Furue/Torontoist unless otherwise specified.