Save the Deli: The Feast of Awe

With the Jewish New Year nearly at hand, let the lineups at the delicatessens begin.

2nd avenue deli 248.88 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
2nd avenue deli 248.88
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
When you’re Jewish, you can taste the holidays.  Passover tastes of dry matzo, Shavuot of sweet farmer’s cheese, and Yom Kippur of stale hunger. Consider it the edible manifestation of spiritual commitment, an observance that has a distinct flavor on the tongue or rumble in the belly. For me, the tastiest feast happens on Rosh Hashanna, the Jewish New Year, which begins on September 18th this year.  In terms of foods, Rosh Hashanna is less restrictive than other holy days.  The one proscription is to eat sweets (especially apples dipped in honey), to usher in a sweet new year.  In my family, the apples are just the opening note in a marathon opera of caloric endurance that usually ends in unbuttoned slacks and cousins collapsed across couches like heroes martyred on a battlefield canvas.
Most North American Jews are Ashkenazi, which means they descended from people who lived in communities around Eastern Europe, and spoke Yiddish.  Ashkenazi foods are those most commonly associated with Jewish cooking in America:  matzo ball soup, challa bread, and chopped liver. These foods anchor the Rosh Hashanna table and often times appear in Jewish houses only during the holy days. While many of hosts will crack out the Joan Nathan cookbook or Bubbe’s recipe cards and cook up a storm, a good number will also head to their local delicatessen and stock up for the feast. 
The week before Rosh Hashanna is the most crucial business period for Jewish delicatessens all year. “That week I’ll do six times as much catering as I’ll do on any other week all year,” says New York's Second Avenue Deli manager Steve Cohen.  Deli cooks will work around the clock, delivery drivers will speed around town, orders will be shouted, prices will be haggled, tickets will be brandished, and old women will cry bloody murder over the price of a container of kasha varnishkes.
The source of the Rosh rush lies behind the refrigerated display cases of most Jewish delicatessens.  When people tend to visit delis during the rest of the year, they often ignore the dishes behind the dish in favor of sandwiches, fries, and Dr. Brown sodas; foods that are every bit American as they are Jewish.  But those treats behind the display case are the edible remnants of the old country. Lying there, amid chopped ice and beds of lettuce, is a veritable archive of Yiddish cookery. 
First off there’s gefilte fish, that poached, oatmeal colored patty of minced fish served with sweet horseradish.  It seems to remain one of the many foods in delicatessens that have fallen out of favor with each successive generation.  Truth be told, it’s not exactly appealing to look at.  I didn’t eat the stuff until I was at least 20, but I find myself craving it regularly. The best one I’ve ever eaten is at the Second Avenue Deli, where it’s jokingly referred to as “g’fish”.  Each bite bursts forth with a torrent of sweet moisture. It’s as though you’re eating a freshly caught carp.  For the true traditionalist, the Bagel in Chicago does a whole Polish style whitefish stuffed with gefilte fish.
On the opposite end of the diet scale is kishka, a.k.a. stuffed derma.  A kosher take on Polish blood sausage, kishka traditionally was a beef intestine stuffed with matzo meal and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), poached and served with gravy.  Because of what’s involved in making it (smelly cow guts, liquid fat) and its short shelf life, many delis serve a synthetic version made by Hebrew National with a vegetable filling and a collagen casing.  It is to kishka what tempeh is to meat…a tasteless imitation that tricks only the most deluded mind. Real kishka is tough to find, but the superbly homemade version at Brent’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles, rewards eaters with a broiled crackling sausage filled with a fat-soaked meal that tastes like the salty trimmings off a duck confit.
Other foods that reside in the display case that are often overlooked include sweet and sour stuffed cabbage. Gleiberman’s Kosher Deli, in Charlotte, NC, turns ordinary ground beef into a ragout that’s as tender as veal by braising their stuffed cabbage for endless hours.  Kreplach, dumplings filled with chopped beef or potato, are best served pan fried with loads of caramelized onions, and possibly a side of egg barley sautéed with mushrooms, onions, and schmaltz, like they do at Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, TX.
Apple cake and honey cake are de rigueur for Rosh Hashanna, but why stop there?  I think various kugels are obligatory, including potato, and of course the lokshen casserole.  Jimmy and Drew’s 28th Street Deli in Boulder, CO features one that’s so rich, it’s like a baked custard held together by egg noodles with the decadence sweetness of Cinnabon.  And let’s not forget rugelach, the dense, flaky cookies that come in a rainbow of flavors, from apple and nuts to fig, raspberry, and chocolate.  Canter’s in Los Angeles is the Mecca for these treasures. Bring a box over to your Rosh Hashanna dinner, and ring in the New Year with sweetness from the deli counter.
David Sax is the author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. He also runs the blog and works as a freelance journalist in New York.