Saul’s got SOLE: The Jewish deli in Berkeley evolves

saulsexteriorWhen it comes to comfort food — especially comfort food that is wrapped in "tradition" like the Jewish deli — change can cause a lot of discomfort.

People want what they think will make them feel better. They want what they are used to eating, whether that means a chilled soup in the middle of winter, pickles made from imported cucumbers, or sandwiches piled high with delicious fatty meats. So it's not surprising that the proprietors of Saul's, a bustling restaurant and deli located a block north of Chez Panisse in Berkeley's "Gourmet Ghetto," has run into some resistance as they try make their menu more sustainable by sourcing from local suppliers, eliminating food miles, increasing the seasonality of the menu, and downsizing or deleting some "traditional" deli items that have become compromised by the industrial food system.

The interior at Saul's. (Saul's Deli photo)

The interior at Saul's. (Saul's Deli photo)

A "Referendum on The Deli Menu"

On Tuesday night, I attended a panel discussion about the Jewish deli and sustainability. I can't say that I'm a deli aficionado and have only a passing acquaintance with the classic dishes, but I was interested in hearing about the interactions (or collisions) between traditions and sustainability, as well as discussions about "authenticity."

The panel, moderated by Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food and owner-chef of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles, included Michael Pollan; Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic and author of "The Truth About Green Business"; Willow Rosenthal of City Slicker Farms; and the two co-owners of Saul's, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt. (A video recording of the event is posted at Fora.tv, via David Sax's Save the Deli.)

Adelman said that Saul's has been undertaking a "stealth mission" of increasing the sustainability of the menu. The deli's changes have gone far enough, she said, that they want to find a way to "ask for permission" — to hold a non-binding referendum, so to speak — before going much further. A post on the Saul's blog explains some of the changes they have been trying, which include making their pastrami and other meat products from locally raised grass-fed beef (such as from Marin Sun Farms), reducing the size of sandwiches, taking items off of the menu, adding more seasonal items to the menu, and replacing some commercial sodas with house-made sodas. (Dr. Brown's Celery Soda, for example, is a high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened concoction made by the Dr. Pepper/Snapple Group.)

"We know what we love has some issues"

Kleiman began by reading a typical grocery list from her 90-year-old mother. It was full of prepackaged, out-of-season, and industrial foods that had been a part of her life for decades.

"We know what we love has some issues," she said.

sandwich-from-hypergenesb-at-flickr

The "Woody Allen" at the Carnegie Deli

Kleiman and several of the panelists noted that deli icons like the 6-inch-tall sandwich aren't part of the actual deli tradition, but instead are products of post-World War II affluence and an industrial food supply.* Similarly, the idea that a deli's menu should be unchanging throughout the year is also a recent idea, one made possible by the post-war changes to the food system and to our attitudes about eating. Whereas much of the truly traditional Jewish deli menu was once driven by the need to use what you had — chicken soup made from the remnants of a whole roasted chicken, dumplings made from leftover bread — or by a need to follow the seasons, many customers just want what they want. Pollan noted that while there is a lot of yelling about the loss of "traditional" towering sandwiches or unavailability of items out of season, not many people are standing up for much longer tradition of frugality.**

"We're down to one salami"

Another important change to the deli since the war is consolidation. At one time, the Jewish community had countless small producers, resulting in an exciting variety of offerings, but the growing power of big firms, the nationalization of the food system, and more stringent food safety regulations have led to the disappearance of almost all of the small producers. For example, Hebrew National, maker of a popular deli salami, is owned by the giant ConAgra Foods and is just about the only maker of kosher salami. FDA rules make it quite difficult for small producers to get going. "We're down to one salami," said Levitt. And that salami is not on the menu at Saul's; they are actively seeking an alternative (in-house curing is too much of a challenge at this time).

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Behind the counter at Manny's in Chicago

Change is hard, especially when it involves comfort food or foods you've been eating for decades. So how can Saul's and other restaurants make progress in evolving their menu?

Friend suggested that progressive places like Saul's need to offer alternatives that are more satisfying: more flavorful, more nutritious, and so on. Saul's should rely more on its staff, menu, and other marketing material to help educate diners about the changes and their rationale — Pollan recommended that they "tell more stories." Pollan recounted how much has changed for the better in American eating in recent years, some of it driven by Chez Panisse's obsession with freshness. At Chez Panisse, he said, the first arrivals of new items, like the first Dungeness crab of late Autumn or the first stone fruit of summer, are celebratory events. And so it could make sense for Saul's to generate excitement by having ingredient-related events. Rosenthal suggested emphasizing the flavor benefits of seasonal eating. People are already aware of this: most know about the dramatic difference between a winter and summer tomato.

The half-sour dill pickle is one item that could inspire seasonal celebration. The "half-sour" is a cucumber that has been fermented for 7-10 days, and then has a shelf life of just a few weeks. Since cucumbers only grow in Northern California in the late summer and early autumn, the last local half-sour is gone in November. Nonetheless, it is requested throughout the year, and so some delis make their out-of-season pickles using imported cucumbers. This prompted Pollan to quip that Saul's "could try Pickle Week."

The deli is already experimenting with 'events' in the digital realm: for foods available irregularly — like smoked fish  — they have an e-mail alert system so the members of the list will be the first to know about special arrivals.

At the end of the discussion, Adelman said that her ultimate vision of Jewish deli cuisine is one that reaches back to pre-war traditions while also reaching forward to more sustainable approaches. Although we didn't have a show of hands or secret ballot before leaving the room, I think that most in the audience were convinced that Saul's is approaching their changes with care and thoughtfulness, and the future of this deli is in good hands.

Notes

*We are seeing a somewhat similar argument around bluefin tuna in Japan (in an AP article on the San Francisco Chronicle website, for example). If trade in the highly endangered fish is restricted by the Convention on International Trade Endangered Species (CITES), the argument goes, a cherished Japanese tradition will be lost. However, the regular availability of bluefin tuna in Japan is mostly a result of air freight and the popularity of bluefin tuna is a relatively recent phenomenon, as sushi expert Trevor Corson wrote for the Atlantic Monthly's Food Channel.

**On the subject of frugal foods, it's interesting that some of America's finest restaurants (like Chez Panisse) are built around the foods of the Italian peasant or the French countryside, culinary styles that were created by frugality and seasonality. The ubiquitous mesclun salad, with its mix of baby greens originated in part as a way to use greens thinned from the fields and foraged wild greens.

Photo CreditsPhoto of the counter at Manny's Cafeteria and Delicatessen (Chicago) from opacity's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License; Photo of Giant sandwich ("The Woody Allen") from hypergenesb's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

3 Responsesto “Saul’s got SOLE: The Jewish deli in Berkeley evolves”

  1. JackieB says:

    As a farmer and supporter of local foods, small farms and frugality, I have to say I'm a little irritated by this.   Saul's is making smart changes for the better of their deli, the local agricultural system and the environment--changes I appreciate, as I'm sure many do.  But I don't see why they have to make a 100% change to their menu and risk losing their main customer support base.  Let them keep their 6 inch tall sandwich that is so popular but use locally sourced ingredients to build it, for example. Let them source a few organic cucumbers from another country so they can continue to offer a beloved product that most people wouldn't make on their own.   I don't think we do anyone any favors by promoting this all-or-nothing approach.  Saul's seems committed to the SOLE food ideal--let them continue to make strides towards that goal without alienating their customer base.  Indeed, where might those disappointed customers go?  Probably to that not-so-thoughtful deli down the street with their industrially-sourced everything on the menu.

    A quick aside:  frugality is a good choice for individuals to make and a restaurant to follow, but 'Be Frugal' is a horrible marketing tool for a deli to use.  When their customers get on that frugality bandwagon, they just might decide to stay home and construct their own 6 inch sandwich.

  2. Merredith says:

    While I'm not irritated, and I applaud Sol's deli for its efforts to keep ingredients local and sustainable, I agree in spirit with much of JackieB's comments above.   You bring people along with education -- and with taste, and helping them feel good about advocating for you.  There are plenty of farmers across the State and country who are trying to be organic and sustainable; and yes, in other countries as well; and if you get cucumbers from them for a few months while you wait for the Northern California cukes to come back into season, you at least are supporting a smart and ethical business on both ends of that ecosystem.

    I'd much rather Sol's keep its customers, ban the most egregious foods (right there with you on high-fructose corn syrup, for example) and offer more sustainable alternatives; in other words, do its best to update the classics -- sustainably -- that keep its business alive.

  3. For reasons of space, I left out some of the important discussion around the six-inch tall pastrami sandwich. The economics of the big sandwich -- even when using cheap meat -- are terrible. I think the exact phrase was "killing our business" (you'll have to check the video to find the exact phrase). Even as a "loss leader" it doesn't work, as deli customers aren't ordering the right mix of products to recoup the losses (e.g., not many people ordering high-margin bottles of wine or cocktails in a deli).

    Another possible misconception is that Saul's is moving to a 100% seasonal model. That is not the case, they are picking and choosing their highest priorities and making changes to those priorities. And, of course, they are making these changes while constrained by the economic realities of the restaurant business (which are brutal).

    As for frugality, I don't see a complete conflict between "frugal cuisine" and delicious meals that you wouldn't want to make at home. It can be frugal to use the whole animal, but require considerable skill and effort to make special dishes using the offal -- see, for example, the wizardry of offal-master Chris Cosentino at Incanto in San Francisco. Or to use the carcass of a roasted chickens to make a long-simmered and sublime chicken soup that you'd never be able to make at home. Or to use dried-out bread instead of brand-new matzo meal to make superb dumplings.  It all comes down to intent and execution.