Two new books focusing on meat, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” and David Sax’s “Save the Deli,” offer fascinating and contrasting views on the value of meat in American Jewish culture. Although the books are, so to speak, apples and oranges — “Eating Animals” is a moral indictment of factory farming and “Save the Deli” is a rhapsody for a disappearing culinary institution — they suggest the diverse, divergent ways in which American Jewish life is defined by its attitudes about food. Or put another way: Are we what we eat?
Safran Foer, author of the best-selling novel “Everything is Illuminated,” offers a devastating indictment of our exploitation of animals and related endangerment of our health, and it leaves no doubt about his feelings toward vegetarianism. His approach to food is a moral one, connecting to the tradition’s prophetic impulse. And the carrier of this multi-layered tradition is his grandmother.
Here’s a short dialogue between the two of them, discussing a piece of meat a Russian farmer brought his grandmother during the worst moments of World War II:
“He saved your life.”
“I didn’t eat it.”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”
“What do you mean why?”
“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”
“But not even to save your life?”
“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”
The punch line of this dialogue suggests that the food we eat is nothing less than a symbol of who we are. What does it mean to be kosher, for instance, at a moment when what was once the country’s largest kosher meat-packer, Agriprocessors, is drowning in fraud and accusations of cruelty to animals? The energy the Reform and Conservative movements (and elements of the Orthodox community) are putting into a re-evaluation of the spiritual definition of kashrut suggests that the issue of how or if we eat animals is crucial to the health of the community.
Safran Foer also makes the case that our relationship to food is a function of the stories we tell about it. Tellingly, “Eating Animals” begins and ends with chapter titled “Storytelling.”
“Stories about food are stories about us — our history and our values,” he explains. “Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable — the saltwater is also tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction.”
The guiding presence in this book is Safran Foer’s grandmother, for whom food “is not food. It is terror, dignity, gratitude, vengeance, joyfulness, humiliation, religion, history, and, of course, love.”
On the other end of the spectrum from “Eating Animals” is David Sax’s “Save the Deli,” a brilliantly entertaining travelogue through the world of the contemporary Jewish delicatessen. His descriptions of “aromatic corned beef, peppery pastrami, braised brisket, garlicky salami, and silken tongue” melt in your mouth. Who could resist the kishke Sax samples at Brent’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles, “a greasy tube of goodness that crackled when I sliced into it, revealing a warm, moist meal the color of amber lager ... imagine a sausage with the flavor of duck confit.”
Sax is after bigger (gefilte) fish than just the tastiest sandwich. His book is an elegy for a culinary institution representing American Jewish culture’s attempt to most profitably balance the present and the past. As Sax quotes journalist Gail Simmons about Jewish deli fare: “It is pure comfort food, preserved and pickled to outlast anything.”
For me, this begs the obvious question: What, in our post-denominational, almost post-hekshered life, is worth saving? What of our grandparent’s stories, of the food they brought over from the old country, is still necessary for our growth as a people?
A counterpoint to the story of Safran Foer’s grandmother braving death instead of eating pork is the startling first paragraph of “Save the Deli.”
“Two years before I was born, my grandfather ‘Poppa’ Sam Sax died by way of a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen in Montreal. ... He devoured the ill-advised delicacy immediately on his release from the hospital, where he had been treated for angina.” Sax imagines this apocalyptic moment as a species of gustatory orgasm: “But oh, the seconds before, when the steaming, spicy smoked meat melted the white fat between those rye slices, combining into a flavor explosion that no Jewish man of his generation could possibly resist.”
Sax allows a critique of his own argument — that the deli and deli food is literally important enough to die for — in the words of HEEB Magazine’s editor, Joshua Neuman: “If we can live without animal sacrifice, we can live without the pastrami sandwich.’”
Whether we can — or should — live without our grandparents’ food is the question we need to answer.
Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence and director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
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