Best of Fish & Bicycles: My kingdom for a deli!

Originally Published: April 15, 2010

If you are Jewish and not a vegetarian and you gaze at this photo and don’t start salivating uncontrollably, then you probably don’t have a pulse either.

As I wrote during Passover, I’m not much of a Jew in religious terms. But damn! I read an article today in the New York Times that stirred something Jewish deep inside of me.

My stomach.

Can the Jewish Deli Be Reformed?

New delis, with small menus, passionate owners and excellent pickles and pastrami, are rising up and rewriting the menu of the traditional Jewish deli, saying that it must change, or die. For some of them, the main drawback is the food itself, not its ideological underpinnings.

So, places like the three-month-old Mile End in Brooklyn; Caplansky’s in Toronto; Kenny & Zuke’s in Portland, Ore.; and Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, N.C., have responded to the low standard of most deli food — huge sandwiches of indifferent meat, watery chicken soup and menus thick with shtick — by moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.

Excuse me, but what exactly is indifferent meat?

I don’t know about this revolution in Jewish delis, because I do know that one of the positives of having been raised Jewish is having been introduced to the joys of a corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw, and Russian dressing on rye bread sandwich, with a crisp kosher pickle on the side. There is NOTHING indifferent about that!

Bellingham does not have a Jewish deli, and I’ve been living here long enough (17 years), so thoroughly distracted by the magnificent natural beauty, dynamic community, a family, and a career that I’d managed to completely forget the waves of pleasure that would course through my body at the first bite into that sandwich and the pickle chaser. But one read through that Times article and a look at the accompanying photos brought it all back, and I feel the loss from every day of every week of every month and of every year that I’ve been without this food of my people.

Since Shakespeare’s been on my mind lately, let me put it this way: If Richard III was Jewish and had been deprived of corned beef and pastrami and pickles for 17 years, while he might have been concerned that justice was closing in on him in the battle of Bosworth Field, he absolutely would have given his kingdom for a deli rather than a horse.

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