Anyone with even the faintest knowledge of construction knows that a house is only as good as the quality of its foundation. You can build golden McMansions to the sky, stock them with plasma screens and granite countertops, four-car garages and modernist furnishings, but if the foundation is shaky, you might as well be living in a tarpaper shack. So why should a sandwich at a Jewish delicatessen be any different?
There's a crisis in the Jewish deli, and it starts at the bottom: the rye bread. Simply put, most of the rye bread at delicatessens around America is not worth the effort it takes to chew. Of all the ryes I tasted in my global research into Jewish delicatessens, none were more disappointing than the supposedly legendary New York rye. The bread at such landmark delis as Katz's or the 2nd Ave Deli is a disgrace, and the delis' owners readily admit to it. The crusts are limp, the centers dry, and there is hardly any yeasty aroma to account for. It falls apart under any real stress, leaving you with a handful of greasy meat and mustard. If the finest musicians in the world shine on the stage at Carnegie Hall, doesn't the finest pastrami in New York deserve a canvas to make it sing?
Real Jewish rye, made with a large percentage of coarse rye flour, hasn't existed for years in New York. Most so-called "rye" is made from white flour, tossed with a few caraway seeds, and diluted with just enough rye flour to legally call it rye bread. The change came about during the postwar era, when white flour became cheaper, and easier to preserve, than rye flour. Industrial bakeries, such as Levy's, hooked many on the taste of a packaged, pasteurized rye bread with their famous slogan "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Real Jewish Rye." That the bread paled in comparison to traditionally-baked loaves wasn't the point. It was hip, it was cheap, it could last longer. Jewish eaters followed suit. As independent Jewish bakeries succumbed to their larger, industrial competition, quality rye bread disappeared from delicatessens.
The best ryes came from Detroit, where the process of double baking rye bread was pioneered.
Sadly, most New Yorkers don't know the difference between good and bad rye bread anymore. They still believe in the superiority of their ryes and foolishly boast about the supposedly magical New York tap water, which is about as relevant to the quality of rye bread as animal sacrifice is to synagogue worship.
But in my voyages across America, I did manage to encounter traces of what great Jewish rye once tasted like. I had it in Los Angeles, where the warm, heavily seeded rye at Langer's delicatessen perfectly cradles the world's finest pastrami sandwich. I had it at Kaufman's, in Skokie, Ill., where the heavy dredging of cornmeal and wallop of sourness told me that rye was not a bread which stands in the background.