A friend asked me the other day if I knew where to buy good pastrami in Melbourne. I had to answer that I wasn’t quite sure I knew what pastrami was, let alone where to buy it. I didn’t know if I’d ever eaten it. In fact, my friend’s innocent question provoked a string of my own questions: Do we even have pastrami in Australia? Do I only know about it from Seinfeld? Is smoked brisket the same as pastrami? Cos I know where my bubba buys her smoked brisket… What’s so Jewish about pastrami anyway?
I still haven’t got all those pastrami questions answered. But I did read this great article in the NY times (thanks for the link, Bec!) which explores a whole lot of fascinating questions about Jewish food and food traditions, the American Jewish deli and, of course, pastrami.
It’s a well worthy read for those who think about food as much as I do. There are also some fantastic quotes in here from deli owner and Jewish foodies (joodies, perhaps?) . Some which will make you laugh – “I had no idea how much mustard people eat in New York” – and others, make you cringe – “When I go to a deli, it’s because I don’t want to think about local or sustainable or fattening.” And it’s filled with fascinating facts about the history, sustainability and reality of Jewish food, such as in this little excerpt:
By today’s standards, the classic deli’s food is strikingly unhealthful, its vast menu financially unmanageable and its ingredients no longer in tune with the seasonal products of local farmers. Too many shortcuts are taken: sourdough bread instead of rye, prepared blintzes, lax lox.
“Jewish cooks weren’t immune to what happened to food after World War II,” Mr. Sax said. “The powders and jars, convenience food — all of that helped lower the standard.”
In the 1950s, when postwar wealth and a push for assimilation carried many Jews into American suburbs, Jewish food became less distinct: the delis grew bigger and more ornate, and so did the sandwiches. The authentic delis that were left behind in cities often had to adapt; most of them, he said, have now closed.
Mr. Bernamoff, his eyes burning with the fervor of a new deli convert (he is 27 and has never worked in a restaurant before), said that “there is no excuse for a lot of what is served as deli now.”
“When I see tourists going into Katz’s, I feel a kind of rage,” he continued. “This is the food of my people, and places like that are turning it into a joke.”
(Later, in a calmer frame of mind, Mr. Bernamoff allowed that the pastrami at Katz’s is “pretty good.”)
And there is even, thank hashem, a definition of pastrami in there: “a Romanian-Jewish-American hybrid of barbecue, basturma (Turkish dried, spiced meat) and corned beef”.