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.
The best ryes, though, came from Detroit, where the process of double baking rye bread was pioneered. Back in the 1950s, a former U.S. army cook named Jack Goldberg opened up the Stage & Co. Delicatessen in Detroit and later West Bloomfield, Mich. Wanting fresh rye bread but encountering the logistical hurdle that bread delivered that morning would be cool by lunch, Goldberg devised a solution. He ordered his rye breads partially baked (about 80 percent done). Then, before the lunch rush, Goldberg placed the bread in a hot oven, finishing it off for 20 minutes. The result was a warm loaf with a thick, rustic crust on the outside. Rather than put this through a claw-like bread slicer (which cuts thin pieces of bread), Goldberg cut each hot loaf fresh to order, on a deli slicer, in pieces about an inch thick.
Double-baked rye soon distinguished the Stage & Co. from the competition, and the practice spread to just about every single Jewish deli in the Detroit area. One of the best is at Zingerman's, the multimillion-dollar food emporium that began as a small deli. The Zingerman's Bakehouse makes a traditional Jewish rye with far more rye flour than most anywhere else in the country.
So how does it taste? Like no rye you've ever had.
I first experienced double-baked rye at the Bread Basket, a small chain of Detroit delicatessens, with Sy Ginsberg, the corned beef king of Michigan and much of the Midwest. As the waitress set down a sandwich of Ginsberg's trademark corned beef in front of us, I was equally impressed with the bread. It had a darker flecked color to it (the rye flour), with a golden crust that reminded me of good sourdough. The crumb was warm to the touch, and the heat of the oven had released a tangy perfume of yeast. It felt like a little pillow in my hand, cradling the tender corned beef slicked with mustard. The crust had crackle and chew, the crumb was soft and doughy. It tasted like rye bread ought to. Unfortunately for those of us living outside Motown and its suburbs, double-baked rye is rare. Some delicatessens in Los Angeles, such as Brent's, Langer's, and Greenblatt's, deploy it with great skill. So does 3G's Gourmet Deli in DelRay Beach, Fla. But elsewhere we're forced to accept shoddy slices of dry, thin, lifeless, and often stale white bread masquerading as rye. If we're going to save the deli, let's get the foundation right first.