A man walks into a Jewish deli and doesn't come out with a giant pastrami sandwich.
That's no joke, in more ways than one, because in this modern, organic, smaller-portioned, locally sourced, sustainable, artisanal pickle world, a bigger-than-your-head sandwich burgeoning with fatty cured meats of unknown origin just doesn't cut the muster -- or the mustard, as the case may be -- anymore.
So say organizers of the slightly tongue-in-cheek National Jewish Deli Summit to be held Thursday in Berkeley. The theme is "Renaissance? Or 'not real' deli?" It's open to the public at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, but it primarily will be stuffed with renegade deli owners from across the country talking about meaningful life-altering issues facing traditional Jewish delis, and how they think the sacred whitefish-salad sanctuary must to evolve in the 21st century.
"There's an old guard that says 'grass-fed' and 'deli' don't belong in the same sentence," said Karen Adelman, co-owner of Saul's Restaurant & Deli in Berkeley, which is hosting the event. "Even for people who care about sustainability and healthful foods, it seems the Jewish deli has always been some sort of refuge from consciousness about what you're eating.
"But things are changing," she said. "We're moving away from the totally meat-centered giant sandwich. People aren't eating that anymore."
To be sure, Jewish food has often been mocked as food to die "from," not "for." However, that's also part of the appeal. And change is tough to digest, as the nostalgia of comfort foods from many a childhood is linked to the culture like a lox-loaded bagel.
As the late Milton Berle once said, "Anytime someone goes into a Jewish delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies."
The idea is not to ditch the knish, but to make it more foodie friendly for today's health-conscious society. On the menu for the summit are topics such as "Pickle pricing," "In defense of hand-slicing," and "How size matters: of menu and portion."
Before you write this off as typical Bay Area politically correct sensibilities run amok, take note that this counter-deli culture is emerging in places such as Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kenny & Zuke's in Portland, Ore., and Wise Sons Deli in San Francisco, a pop-up shop at Jackie's Café on Saturday mornings.
"The deli idea, in its iconic sense in New York and L.A., is this huge six-page menu," said Peter Levitt of Saul's. "Really? You prepared all that food for me, just at the moment when I ordered it? Or did you take it out of the freezer? We feel you don't have to have every item on your full menu available at 8 in the morning, and instead cycle some of the classic dishes through."
Hence, at many of the "new delis," diners still can get chopped chicken liver, but they also can opt for a grass-fed, nitrate-free hot dog with house-made sauerkraut.
In many ways, these new ideas are considered a throwback to the old traditions, with chefs pickling their own veggies and smoking meats on the premises, instead of trucking in processed slabs from other regions.
"I remember this deli in New York had the best onion rolls in the world," said Jewish food expert Joan Nathan, who most recently published "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France." She flew in from Washington, D.C., this week to moderate the panel at the summit.
"I've learned how to make those onion rolls myself, and make them better, healthier," she said. "In the same way, the next generation is going to try to find the old recipes and get the authenticity, then use better ingredients. That will have to happen -- bringing a new definition of the Jewish deli -- for (delis) to survive.
"The giant salami sandwich may not be dead, but it's on its way out the door."