September 18, 2019

The Heretic: Q & A With David Sax

Rob Eshman: You selected Los Angeles as the best deli city in America. You must have taken some heat for that.
David Sax: It irked people, but no one has built pyres quite yet. New York is the historic and cultural home of Jewish deli, and it’s very much ingrained in the culture. But people just don’t realize how far Los Angles has come, and I didn’t as well. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. Who knew?

RE: So tell me why you think Los Angeles is the best.
DS: One major factor was obviously the predominance of the entertainment industry and how that factors into delicatessens. It provided a tremendous backbone to the business culturally and financially, and you can’t replicate that anywhere else. The deli owners are also on much more friendly terms in Los Angeles than they are in other cities. They tend to talk to one another, to help each other out in certain situations, and that really has an impact in the way the industry works — they’re sort of united in a way. The fact that the majority of the delis are family owned, sometimes two or three or even four generations, also has a tremendous impact on the quality of the food that’s being served, the way that customers are treated, the outlook that you’re really taking care of something. It’s not just an investment — it’s a legacy. 

And in New York, are the delis corporate owned, or are they highly competitive with one another?
DS: There are a few corporate-owned delis. Lindy’s, which is in Times Square, is owned by Riese Restaurants, which is a large restaurant conglomerate that owns a lot of the T.G.I. Friday’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. You also don’t have as many family members working in the delis as you do in Los Angeles.

You must have some kind of visceral connection to deli other than just being hungry.
DS: I had always eaten it as a kid, and it had always been sort of something that we did as a family, so it was probably the familiar food of my youth. It was something that I always loved and identified with, so the emotional connection was always there, the cultural connection was always there, and then this intellectual curiosity came out of a paper I wrote in college. I had realized a lot of the emotional connection was that the delis were dying — the delis were disappearing. I’d see delis that I’d known in Toronto and Montreal and other places close down and I really was sort of struck by that, and so this was my opportunity to say, well, why is that happening? 

RE: How would you explain your emotional connection? 
DS: My family went to a delicatessen in Toronto called Yitz’s once a week, often every Friday night or Saturday, depending on if my mom would cook dinner or not on Friday. We would sometimes go after synagogue, if we would go — you know, the years when I was in the youth choir. It was a ritual, it was a tradition. I mean it was a safe, warm, loving, loving, place.

It’s so tied to family and to all the warm comforting feelings of families.
DS: Right. You know, even the fact that delis cater shivas and delis cater brises, I mean when someone dies in your family you’re not going to order sushi for the shivah.

RE: There’s something about the very atmosphere of the deli — the temperature, the smell, the sounds — it’s so comforting.
DS: And it smells — it really smells like walking into your mother’s kitchen.

And the noise, it’s kind of the noise of the family table.
DS: Exactly. You know you’re going to be taken care of. You know that there’s going to be something you want to eat. It’s comforting, it’s wonderful, it’s warm, it’s inviting — it’s a universal deal beyond Jews.

To join author David Sax for a pastrami at Langer’s and hear him read his book Wed., Oct. 28 at 2:30 pm, click here.