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.
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.