For Better Deli Meats, Slice by Hand

I wonder how the Jewish delicatessen counterman felt back when the deli's owner brought in the first automated Berkel slicing machine. With its whirring circular blade, mechanized springs, and feeder tray, here was a device that could quickly turn a whole corned beef brisket or navel pastrami into uniform ribbons of sandwich meat. (Navel is a kosher cut of beef from the belly of cattle, just below the brisket--similar to brisket but not as fibrous and stringy, and with a denser cap of fat.) Did he think, "This is great. Now I can stop icing my arm at the end of the day?" Or did he just stare in silence, aware that his existence had just been made obsolete, and contemplate smashing the thing to pieces?

The Luddites were a misguided, naïve, and somewhat violent group of idealists, but they weren't wrong. The automated weaving looms that they vainly tried to destroy did end up replacing them, and their livelihood died off.

As the number of Jewish delis have shrunk over the past century, so too have the number of delicatessens that hand-slice their meats. The introduction of the automated slicing machine was Jewish deli's industrial revolution. It allowed deli owners to make more sandwiches with fewer countermen, to waste less meat, and to encourage uniformity. In terms of business, it was a no-brainer. Taste? Not so much.

"This thing is like chewing a racquetball. It has the consistency of a diaphragm. If you cut your meat on a machine, that is going to be in your sandwich."

I am a firm believer that a hand-cut delicatessen sandwich is superior to one sliced on a machine. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Almost anything done by hand in the kitchen is superior to electronic counterparts. Think about a head of lettuce sliced in a shredder versus one cut with a knife, or hand-formed hamburgers vs. those pressed from a mold. The hand can feel. It can sense soft and hard, tender and tough, and it can respond accordingly. A machine can't feel, just like it can't taste, or love.

In my new book, Save the Deli, you'll read in the first chapter about the night at New York's famed Katz's Delicatessen when I got to step behind the legendary counter for a shift of hand-slicing pastrami sandwiches. It was an exhilarating experience, and it taught me a thing or two about the nuances of cutting deli meats.

The alpha cutter at Katz's is Mr. Bienevenido Quiros--aka "Beni", a native of Puerto Rico--who has worked in nearly a dozen Jewish delis around New York City since the late 1960's. He first sliced by machine but learned to hand cut at Lou G. Siegel's, a former stalwart of the garment district. "The [meat at Katz's] is so good because when you slice by hand the juice stays in the meat," Beni told me that night. When you put pastrami on a slicing machine, it is pressed against the blade, and the precious moisture, which makes the difference between a dry sandwich and a succulent one, often ends up dripping onto the counter. Thicker slices retain more moisture; thinner, machine slices dry out quicker.

At Langer's Delicatessen, in Los Angeles--home to the greatest pastrami sandwich in America--owner Norm Langer took a blackened piece of pastrami out of the steam box, slapped it on the wooden counter, and began methodically slicing, flipping the meat over and around, excising tough connective tissue. "When you cut it on a machine, you won't cut out this," Norm said, removing a slimy yellow membrane with a twist of the knife. "This thing is like chewing a racquetball. It has the consistency of a diaphragm. If you cut your meat on a machine, that is going to be in your sandwich."

If there's a hand-slicing Mecca out there, it's definitely Montreal, where every single delicatessen carves their smoked meat (Montreal's spicy, smoked brisket), by hand. To see this in action you need to visit Schwartz's, the tiny, cramped, Romanian-style Jewish deli on Blvd. St. Laurent.

Schwartz's main cutter is Joao "Johnny" Goncalves, a stoutly built immigrant from the Azores with full cheeks and a big smile. He's been cutting smoked meat at Schwartz's for well over a dozen years, and can carve the requisite 5 oz for a sandwich in five seconds, making thousands of sandwiches each day. The strain has left him with tennis elbow, and condition that's required him to wear an elastic brace and undergo surgery.

Despite the pain, Johnny would never switch to a machine. He explained why: when you slice meat on a machine, it needs to remain relatively firm. If it is steamed too tender, the whirring blade will fling scraps of meat everywhere, tearing a soft brisket into a pile of shavings that's ill suited for a sandwich. But when you hand-cut, Johnny told me, you can steam the brisket or navel until it's falling apart, and still keep the slices intact.

Delis that cut by machine steam their meat for less time, then compensate by cutting it paper-thin, so your teeth won't have a problem chewing. My father, who grew up in Montreal but now lives in Toronto, used to ask the delis in Toronto to hand cut his meats. He would then complain that it was too tough. The problem wasn't that the counterman didn't cut it right, it was that their meats were steamed for the machine, and were going to be tougher if cut thicker. Sadly, hand-cutting is relegated to a select few delis spread across the continent, such as Kenny and Zuke's in Portland, Caplansky's in Toronto, and Jake's in Milwaukee. Katz's is the only deli left that hand-cuts pastrami in New York, and Langer's is the only one in Los Angeles. It is widespread in both Montreal and London but nowhere else. It is an art that requires skill, patience, and learning. It can be taught, but not easily, and not quickly. The masters grow old. The skill is lost.

John Georgiou, who runs the B&K Salt Beef Bar in London's suburbs, learned how to wield a knife from his father, Bambos, who learned it himself from the Jewish masters of the East End. "As my dad said, there are a very few carvers, quite a few cutters, and a lot of butchers," John remarked a few years back, while carving a pickled ox tongue into lush, sashimi thick slices. "They know how to cut, but they don't know how to work a brisket."