Survival guide for the Jewish Deli: Re-Plating Pastrami

In 1936, there were an estimated 5,000 delis in New York City. Today, only a few still exist.

The Jewish deli will not survive on nostalgia alone.

To stay relevant, Jewish deli cuisine cannot be frozen in time. Our culinary direction/choices must:

  • Value local commerce and local economies
  • Revive local food security
  • Provide for contemporary tastes: greater appetite for fresh vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits
  • Acknowledge modern science: the relationship of food to health, and
  • Recognize food production’s impact on the environment
  • Humanely treat the animals we eat: know slaughter methods, quality of life.

These are issues to which we are accountable, even when upholding cherished traditions and cherished dishes. Our menus cannot continue be vast and unchanging year-round. Menus must respect season, time, and place.

Of course, tradition and social/environmental responsibility are not always at odds. Sourcing from local, small-scale food producers is one path to reclaiming our cultural roots, as we discussed in our post on authentic Jewish food.

But stewarding Jewish cuisine responsibly is more complicated than that. Beyond organic? Beyond local.

Beyond “the pastrami sandwich was THIS big!”

Meat, especially beef, contributes greatly to global warming.18% of global greenhouse gases come from livestock production. As ruminants, cows produce methane, 20 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon. Livestock also plays a large role in water depletion and pollution, energy use, land degradation, oil demand/petroleum-based fertilizer use and biodiversity destruction. Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day, about twice the global average, and growing global demand is expected to accelerate the damage. Click here for one of Mark Bittman’s hilarious and compelling rants against the amount of meat we consume.

What about grass-finished beef? Shockingly, grass-finished beef has the potential to generate as much as 50% more GHG emissions than grain-fed beef. Albert Straus of the Straus Family Creamery points out in this op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle that raising 100% pastured dairy cows isn’t always possible or sustainable even for small, organic family farms, depending on location and climate.

(Of course, there are still many environmental and health benefits to choosing grass-fed over grain-fed beef, and we are aiming for local and grass-fed as much as possible at Saul’s.)

And eating vegetarian has a lower carbon footprint than eating local meat – no matter how many food miles those veggies, soy, legumes and grains have traveled. Full study here.

What’s more: Pastrami and corned beef come from a small cut of muscle – the navel end of the brisket. This cut of beef is __ pounds on average, and each cow yields just two briskets. At this rate, a single deli potentially requires 10, 20, 30 cows a day.

Oy, Gevalt.

What is Saul’s doing? Redefining “Jewish Cuisine”

Pastrami not the centerpiece of Saul’s or Jewish cuisine: More chicken, turkey, seafood, legume and grain-based dishes. Poultry are not ruminants, and do not have as severe an impact on climate as cows. Poultry production is also more efficient, because of reproductive cycles and grain conversion to meat. Substituting all beef production for chicken would cut meat’s projected carbon footprint by 70 percent, according to a recent study. Responsibly farmed seafood is a more efficient source of protein than all meat, both in terms of reproduction and grain conversion.

Reasserting Jewish cuisine’s rich vegetarian history: 1930’s Poland gave rise to more vegetarian dishes. Sephardic influence emphasizes vegetables, legumes, grains and seafood.

Offering smaller sandwiches: Not the traditional ten or eight ounces of meat on a sandwich – instead, six or four. Though we are purchasing less pastrami and requiring fewer cows, more sandwiches are being served. More Saul’s customers are enjoying and sharing the pastrami experience. Images of towering pastrami sandwiches may dominate the popular deli imagination. Many might argue that mountains of pastrami define authentic deli. But Saul’s is re-plating pastrami. We are sheparding a new presentation for pastrami. We are reducing authenticity’s carbon footprint.

Offering grass-fed beef where possible: we serve Marin Sun Farms grass-fed brisket and ground beef – hamburgers and cabbage rolls. We serve Niman Ranch pastrami and lamb, which is also significantly more sustainable than factory farmed.

Surviving: We want to be a cultural home for years to come. We want to stay viable as a business and a member of the local and global community. To continue serving Jewish cuisine, we seek culinary inspiration from many sources: our shared roots, our history; classic dishes; diasporic influences; the tastes and demands of our customers; social and environmental responsibility; public health . . . . . and the revelations of an evolving food consciousness. We take what is relevant from the past to the future.

To survive through the growing food revolution, Jewish diner cuisine cannot continue to be a purely nostalgic cuisine.

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  1. [...] has a lot to say about reinventing Jewish deli; you can read on the deli’s blog about their take on reviving traditions of Jewish vegetarian cooking, using sustainable beef, and reducing the size of sandwiches.  The [...]

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