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Deli talk with David Sax

The Mel Brooks. The Sid Caesar. The David Sax? If someone ever names a sandwich after Sax, a deli-obsessed Brooklynite, he knows exactly what it should be: grilled salami, on challah. "Cold salami is just an inert mass - but when you heat it up, the magic comes out," says Sax, author of "Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24).

Sax, 30, knows his salami, his schmaltz and his Cel-Ray. In 2006, he embarked on a tour that took him to the world's deli hot spots, and some of the you-wouldn't-think spots.

What did he learn? The deli is in dire straits, and it'll take more than a bowl of silky chicken soup to rectify matters.

You say the most popular items on the menu are also the least profitable. It's $15 for a pastrami on rye, and they're still losing money?

A deli will break even on their pastrami, because the margins have been squeezed so slim. They'll make money on soup and fries, things that are cheap to produce. One disadvantage that Jewish delis have is that Jews aren't big drinkers.

How important is the "excess" of it all? Why can't I just order half a pastrami sandwich?

I think the excess is a product of the immigrants who created this food, who were coming out of 1,000 years of starvation in Eastern Europe. To be able to eat a tremendous portion of salted meat was the greatest thrill you could imagine.

Los Angeles, you say, has become "America's premier deli city," because so many are family-run.

In L.A., you've got the entertainment industry, which is largely populated by East Coast Jews. They take meetings in delis. They write in delis. Whereas, in New York, deli is a "nostalgia" thing. Here, you don't have the heads of investment banks eating at delis. But in L.A., you have Steven Spielberg having lunch at Art's.

As a kid, I'd eat at Woodro's in Hewlett, where the waiters were cantankerous Jewish men. Now the waitress is a Korean woman. What happened?

Look, Jews are largely going to be educated and taking white-collar jobs. The servers at the 2nd Avenue Deli [in Manhattan] are mostly Arabic now. They've been working in that environment long enough that they act like Jewish waiters. In the delis opening up in Colorado and Oregon, they're like, "OK, you guys have to have an attitude - be rude to the customers."

Have delis been hurt by our obsession with health food?

When I was researching the book, I read "The Omnivore's Dilemma." That whole approach to food focuses on the idea that things ought to be made from untainted ingredients. What I'm seeing with newer delis is that "locavore" approach - they're saying, instead of buying the corned beef pre-made, from somewhere 100 miles away, we'll make it ourselves. And the results are infinitely more delicious.


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