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The sustainable Jewish deli… a contradiction in terms?

Have a hard time equating typical Jewish deli fare — say, the mile-high pastrami, or corned beef, or brisket sandwich — with sustainability? You’re not alone: huge servings of fatty meats don’t do much for our health or the planet. A few deli owners around the country are taking a hard look at the impact of the traditional menu associated with their establishments, and trying out an approach that some may literally consider heresy: sustainable deli food.

Last week, four of these owners gathered at Berkeley’s Jewish community center to discuss the future of the deli… and their own incorporation of sustainably-produced, local, and seasonal items onto their menus. It hasn’t been an easy transition: Peter Levitt of Saul’s Restaurant in Berkeley (which sponsored the “Jewish Deli Summit“) told of sending back a shipment of pastrami because it didn’t meet his sustainability standards (and thus meant this staple was off the menu for a short time). Other topics included smaller portions and higher costs… pickles don’t necessarily come free in these establishments. And those pickles may not even be available at times: Levitt noted “If you eat pickles in February, you know they come from Costa Rica and they’re pumped full of chemicals… You shouldn’t be eating pickles in February…”

But doesn’t this approach undermine the cultural foundation of the deli? Moderator and Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan doesn’t think so: “You think they had huge matzah balls in Europe? … The big meat sandwich has become an American tradition, like big matzah balls, but that’s not what the deli was originally. The past is always changing.”

And, yes, those changes include a shift away from Kosher standards for these delis. Noah Bernamoff of Mile End in Brooklyn didn’t mince any words about this change: “Kosher meat is kind of a scam,” he asserted, arguing that it’s “low quality, inhumane, ecological unsustainable, and overpriced, not to mention the abysmal labor practices.”

Much of these owners concerns come down to business — people concerned about their health aren’t eating as much of this kind of food — but also the ethics and impacts of operating according to American deli traditions. What do you think? Time for the deli to catch up with the food movement? Or is that just sacrilege?

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