Michael Pollan, Saul's Deli Secret Pastrami Hawker?


Saul's grassfed pastrami sandwich (left) vs. regular deli pastrami (right) Photo: foodhoe.com

Saul's is part of only a handful of delis refashioning themselves as sustainably sourced eateries. Located in the gourmet ghetto of North Berkeley near Alice Water's Chez Panisse, one would presume its customers would be salivating for a sustainable deli, but not so. People are very attached to Saul's as a traditional, Jewish style deli. To proactively manage the potential unrest, Saul's deli owners decided to hold a "referendum" and invited sustainability experts, farmers, consultants and their customers to discuss whether a deli can become sustainable. Having Michael Pollan's Seal of Approval HelpsIf you want your restaurant to have the imprimatur of sustainability, there's no better person to have on your side than Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules, Berkeley resident and pastrami eating regular at Saul's. The February 9th referendum panel included Pollan, Saul's owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, eco-consultant Gil Friend, City Slicker Farmer Willow Rosenthal, and the moderator, restaurateur, and KCRW radio host Evan Kleiman.Expect a Crowd at a Public Meeting about Food in Berkeley
San Francisco being the foodie capital that it is, interest surged and the event was moved from its originally scheduled location at the Deli to the JCC around the corner to accommodate a sold out audience of 250 attendees paying $10 each. (With all of the proceeds going to benefit the Center for Ecoliteracy.) One of the purposes of the referendum, according to Adelman was that she and Levitt want to seek the "permission" of their customers before making any additional changes to the menu. In essence, the referendum was a public meeting, an opening up of the conversation, only, as opposed to the usual public meeting, in this case the topic was pastrami sandwiches not zoning.

Challenging the Monstrous Sandwich is a Daily Battle at Saul's
We all know the joke attributed to Woody Allen, where the diners discuss that the food is terrible, but that the portions are so small. The pastrami sandwiches at Saul's have 6 ounces of meet which is smaller than the traditional New York 8 -12 + inches. So it's an ongoing issue with Saul's customers kvetching about the sandwich size since their New York reference sets them up to expect a bigger sandwich - even though that's over a quarter pound of meat! Friend and other panelists supported this decision ("so you will only be full for 24 hours instead of 72!") Dainty portions of meat don't seem to be a big hit for an ethnic cuisine that is known for sandwiches so large that it is hard to get your mouth around them. Still, Friend urged that there is a difference between hospitable portions and wasteful ones.

Some of Saul's recently proposed changes
The pastrami now comes from grass-fed Marin Sun Farm beef; the borscht and half sour Healdsburg made pickles are only available when cucumbers and beets are in season; Berkeley's Acme Bakery supplies an Old World rye and Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray and cream sodas have been replaced with homemade varieties including exotic flavors like Meyer lemon, ginger, and cardamom.

Sustainable Meat is Expensive
Saul's owners got to a point where they didn't want to sell beef that they wouldn't eat themselves. Michael Pollan also mentioned he didn't eat the meat at Saul's until they made the switch to grass fed beef. But sustainable beef is expensive: regular meat costs $2 a lb., Niman Ranch $4 a lb., and Marin Sun Farm's local beef costs $6 a lb. Levitt reasoned that these costs make the towering, Cadillac version of the pastrami sandwich economically unsustainable as well as bad for the environment. "Customers want the same amount of meat that goes into a steak but they are not willing to pay the price of a steak and they don't buy a glass of wine with the sandwich." Other, non-sustainable delis are having a problem too--even non-sustainable pastrami has become a money suck. (Even McDonalds makes money off fries and soda and loses money on its burgers. Meat is expensive.) Adelman chipped in, "we need to eat less meat . . . which I know is weird for you to hear from a Pastrami hawker."

Cured Meats are a Unique Sustainability Challenge
There are some other challenges for a kosher style deli attempting to become sustainable that are unique to the deli's traditional, cured meat-centric menu. For example, Saul's stopped carrying salami a few months ago, because salami can't be sold until it has been FDA inspected, and there currently isn't any sustainable salami for sale unless you smoke your own on site. Also, current versions of grass fed corn beef are dry and crumbly. But most restaurants (including Saul's) don't have the option of making corn beef in-house as corn beef needs to stay in brine for a few weeks and that requires a lot of space. Levitt confessed this was the first time they had discussed the corn beef dilemma publicly. The traditional corned beef deli sandwich is mass produced and the meat is heavily subsidized. Levitt explained that he and Adelman wanted to move away from large scale industrial food operations. Many attendees were surprised to find out that Hebrew National is owned by ConAgra Foods. (Including me!)

Sustainable Isn't the Same as Kosher
Saul's pastrami sandwich is also notably not kosher. People assume "kosher" is better, and the label strives to be more ethical, but kosher foods have become more industrialized and mass produced, sometimes resulting in ethical lapses like a somewhat notorious slaughter house violation in Iowa. Ethics could unite the issues of kosher and sustainability, perhaps via a new label/certification of "eco-kosher." Pollan suggested the label "beyond kosher."

Customers are Warming to the Changes
So what do customers think of the new pastrami sandwich? Since a referendum of attendees at the panel were probably less than objective, I turned to yelp to find out. Yelpers have complained about the size of the new pastrami sandwich. "Sandwiches with meager portions of meat," was one comment, and the switch from Dr. Browns wasn't popular with everyone, but most people were warming up to the homemade and less sugary sodas. (I love their sweet-but-not-too-sweet taste).

Saul's Homemade Sodas photo: Saul's Deli
Educational Happy Meals
Pollan has said that it is incumbent upon Saul's and other restaurants making the sustainability switch to educate their customers so they know what to expect. For the mom and pop restaurant it is going to require a big commitment to train staff as well as a rethinking of traditional food by customers. For example, Saul's restaurant has taught their servers not to call the one kind of smoked salmon that they serve lox or Nova, because it isn't. This type of education needs to be handled delicately as when people crave comfort food they are often not in the mood to be schooled. Food is one of the most personal elements in people's life, so in-restaurant education needs to be light and unobtrusive. Saul's gives samples of their homemade sodas, so that customers can adjust their taste buds to the slightly sweetened sodas. After the sample customers are often hooked.

Celebrating the Seasons
Another change Saul's has made is to have an email alert sent out to regulars when a special food comes in or is added to the menu. That way Saul's doesn't need to carry a specific item every day. They have a smoked fish alert, a flanken alert, and a kishka alert. Pollan suggested that they have a pickle celebration the first week in June when cucumbers are back in season.

Food Changes
The definition of authentic changes. Authentic Jewish cuisine initially was based on the Eastern European style not NYC's. Overall, it was Diaspora cuisine, wherever Jews went they adapted their cuisine based on the surrounding culture. The cuisine needs to reach back and connect to the past, but also connect to the future. It is unrealistic to think culture is static, there wouldn't be Jewish delis at all without flux. Older delis are still using highly processed products from mainstream manufacturers, featuring hormone- and antibiotic-injected beef, artificial caramel and other additives. But older delis are also disappearing, so perhaps Adelman and Levitt are onto something as they try to take the deli out of the past.

For many the Jewish deli is a secular synagogue; it combines the emotional pull of nostalgia and the historical function of the deli as a central meeting place. Delis have to cater to this emotional component and that is tricky. So perhaps, we can settle the issue by calling Saul's a Jewish eatery, just not a Jewish deli. But until sustainability in traditional restaurants becomes more common, Saul's and other restaurants will be pioneers leading the charge and educating customers and staff, one bite at a time.

Saul's Free Range Chicken Matzo Ball Soup photo: Saul's deli
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Tags: Alice Waters | Beef | Farming | Fish | Local Food | Michael Pollan | Pesticides

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