Not Your Bubby's Brisket: An Exploration of Boston's Jewish Deli Scene
For a time, it seemed delis were endangered. Then, suddenly, they're one of the nation's hottest food trends. In this two-part series, we explore the deli's nostalgic past and promising future.
Jewish cooking is love made edible.
- David Apfelbaum, David's Deli
Jewish deli wasn’t a big part of my childhood. Growing up in rural New England in a mostly vegetarian home, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for hot pastrami and corned beef. Sure, trips to Boston included a stop at The Butcherie for kosher chicken and spinach knishes, but they were rare. It took moving to Montreal and regularly eating Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwiches to fully comprehend the miracle of converting tough brisket into stacks of thick-cut spiced meat, served on mustard-covered rye and bursting with fat.
The Jewish or New York style deli emerged at the turn of the 20th century in New York’s Lower East Side. Between 1880 and 1920, over two million Jews left Europe for Manhattan bringing their culinary traditions with them. Jewish foods were initially sold on the street in pushcarts, which evolved into brick and mortar establishments. (Sound familiar?) The 1920s and ‘30s, saw the Jewish deli gain popularity with Broadway and film stars, briefly making it a status symbol. This, however, would be peak-schmaltz.
The post-war period of the 1950s marked a time of transition for New York Jewry. There would be no more mass migrations from the old country and the population here was improving socially and economically, moving to the suburbs and buying packaged food from the supermarket. Before long, the Jewish deli became an endangered species both in New York and throughout the country. Though their numbers have thinned, there are a handful of delis that remain viable, carving out their piece of the kugel. And there is a renewed interest in deli foods. Places like Mile End, Kenny & Zuke’s and Russ & Daughters are coupling tradition with foodieism to create eateries more in line with modern tastes and values.
As for Boston, I never really thought of it as a deli city. This is Bean Town after all, where the corned beef usually comes boiled. But there was a time when deli culture thrived here. Older residents fondly remember former delis like Jack & Marion’s, Max Andrews’, Barney Sheff’s and G&G. Throw in the still open Rubin’s and S&S into that group, and you can see that there’s always been room for Jewish deli in this chowder town. What follows is my, admittedly incomplete, exploration of Boston’s current deli landscape and a glimpse of what’s to come.
My journey begins in Brookline at Michael’s Deli. Michael’s is cozy and narrow with limited seating. It’s sparsely decorated save for some sports memorabilia and a Body By Corned Beef t-shirt, and I can imagine it fitting in nicely on the Lower East Side. The gregarious Steven Peljovich is the owner here. A veteran restaurateur, Peljovich is working the deli counter when I arrive. He taps an employee to take his place at the register and we sit at a table.
In 1977, Michael Sobelman opened this business in Marblehead before moving it to Brookline 18 years ago. He built his reputation by finding high quality meat and cooking it in-house, the old fashioned way. Peljovich, who took the reigns more than four years ago hopes he’s continuing Sobelman’s legacy. “My goal with what we do here is to continue to source great product and serve, the best that I can, the traditional deli I grew up with,” says the Miami Beach native.
But Peljovich understands that Jewish food struggles to keep up with modernity. “Even barbecue joints don’t barbecue the way they used to 200 years ago,” he says. “And in a lot of ways, delis haven’t adapted. Over half my guests aren’t Jewish. They didn’t grow up eating deli. They have no idea what it is.”
We’re interrupted by a decidedly non-Jewish patron, an older gentleman, who says to Steven, “I haven’t had good corned beef in 30 years. It’s usually too spicy and doesn’t have good texture. Yours is excellent.”
“And that’s what you do it for,” Peljovich kvells. “That sort of fulfillment is better than having a busy place. You know when people say it reminds me of my mom’s food or it smells like my grandmother’s kitchen, that’s the best compliment you can get.”
An alarm goes off in the kitchen, “wait a second, that’s my brisket,” Peljovich bounds off, returning with a slice of challah bread and gravy in a small plastic cup. He rips off a corner of the bread and dips it into the cup.
“Try some,” he says to me. “That’s what my grandfather taught me. If the juice is good you made good brisket. You won’t read that in a recipe book, you won’t see that anywhere. But that’s what eight hours of cooking will do.” Peljovich laughs at the haymishness of it all. But he’s right, it is good juice; briny and fatty. It takes willpower not to stop the interview and demand a sandwich.
We talk for a while, meandering between topics. Peljovich makes as much of the product as he can here, but some items are too labor intensive (pickled tongue) or too foreign to him (mortadella). He beams when talking about his homemade knish varieties and lovingly pokes fun at the people who come in asking about “nishes.” Peljovich’s parents came from Cuba, so his holiday tables had black beans and rice, noting how Jews always adapt their eating habits to their surroundings. In many ways, Michael’s is a reflection of Peljovich’s upbringing. Tradition is protected, but local tastes are valued. He doesn’t care if you order an Italian sub and a Moxie over pastrami and Dr. Brown’s, he just wants to make sure you’re eating enough.
Since I can’t go to the Bronx to visit Peljovich’s brisket supplier, I figure I’ll do the next best thing and head to Dorchester’s Newmarket Square, an industrial district housing many of the city’s top food purveyors. Entering the oddly quiet collection of warehouses and processing plants, I approach a small, unassuming factory painted white with humble blue lettering announcing the Boston Brisket Company.
I enter through soft plastic curtain strips that keep the factory chilly as a small crew of workers vacuum pack hunks of beef, add labels and prepare them for transport. I head upstairs to the office where owner Jack Epstein is waiting for me. He looks the part of a gruff, no nonsense butcher, but his tough exterior quickly melts away. Epstein started the company in 1982 with a loan of $2,500 he never thought he’d pay back. Now his factory ships about 25,000 pounds of meat a day.
A Chelsea native, Epstein’s family was in the meat business, so he saw the decline of Boston’s Jewish delis firsthand. He explains how the delis used to serve the community. They were where people got platters for life events and meat for home cooking. Now people go to the supermarket. “People don’t eat the same,” he adds. “When you go to your physician for your yearly checkup, he doesn’t say, ‘I hope you’ve been eating pastrami three times a week.’ Also, people used to gather at the old delis. You would go in there and you’d see five retired guys sitting there at a table for three hours. Today, they’ll go to McDonalds.”
While there’s an issue of demand, Epstein also identifies a problem on the supply side. The raw product is expensive and deli-ife is grueling. The old workers put in long hours, requiring a professional commitment rarely seen today.
“People can make more money not working as hard,” Epstein says. “Like the meat business, my kids say they don’t want to work like me. That’s the bottom line, it’s just a different world.” While Epstein has a somewhat bleak view of the industry, he thinks there will always be a market for it, even if it changes shape. “There could be a resurgence of delis. People are looking now for better food than they were ten years ago, I think. But it’s got to be done right.”
Epstein shows me around the plant to see the process. Raw brisket is passed through a pickle injector, which looks like it was designed by a Bond villain. Meat gets fed through a conveyor belt where it’s poked by needles, infusing it with brine before barreling. While some restaurants prefer only barrel fermented briskets, the injector is the best way to ensure an even brine every time. Meats that need to be smoked go into a smokehouse the size of a single car garage and then are cooled and packaged. It’s all quite remarkable considering the size of the building and staff. Epstein reminisces while slicing me off a strip of black pastrami loaded with smoky peppercorn flavor.
“When I was real young we’d go to Ken’s in Copley on a Sunday and it would be packed,” he says. “Now there’s very few place to get lox onions and eggs done right; a good bagel, bulkie or chopped liver. You got me craving. Now I gotta go out to eat.”
Michael’s Deli – 256 Harvard St., Brookline, 617.738.3354, michaelsdelibrookline.com
Look for part II of Elisha's piece on Jewish delis Thursday April 28th.