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. For me, the tastiest feast happens on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins on September 18th, this Friday. In terms of foods, Rosh Hashanah is less restrictive than other holy days. The one prescription is to eat sweets (especially apples dipped in honey), to usher in a sweet new year.
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, challah bread, and chopped liver. These foods anchor the Rosh Hashanah table and often times appear in Jewish houses only during the holy days. They are also staples of the delicatessen--a threatened but still-thriving breed, as I write in my new book, Save The Deli. 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.
Lying there, amid chopped ice and beds of lettuce, is a veritable archive of Yiddish cookery.
The week before Rosh Hashanah--this week--is the most crucial business period for Jewish delicatessens all year. "I'll do six times as much catering as I'll do on any other week all year," says 2nd Ave 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.
When people tend to visit delis during the rest of the year, they often ignore the dishes in the refrigerated display case and simply order sandwiches, fries, and Dr. Brown sodas; foods that are every bit American as they are Jewish. But those overlooked, viewable treats 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 is one of the many foods in delicatessens that has 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 I've ever eaten is at the 2nd Ave 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.
Photo by David Sax
On the opposite end of the diet scale is kishka, a.k.a. stuffed derma. A kosher take on Polish blood sausage, kishka was traditionally 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, most 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 hard to find, but the superbly homemade version at Brent's Delicatessen in Los Angeles rewards eaters with a broiled sausage filled with savory 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 its 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 Hashanah, but why stop there? I think various kugels are obligatory, including potato, and of course 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 and as fragrant as the drive-you-mad odor Cinnabon ejects into every airport. 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 Hashanah dinner, and ring in the New Year with sweetness from the deli counter.