Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hand Carving Deli Meats

This Atlantic article about the death of a tradition in delis, falls squarely into the "controversies I was unaware of that don't really effect me regardless" category of food articles, but I found it interesting nonetheless. I mean, it has three linked YouTube videos of old deli dudes hand carving meat... so clearly it's something that inspires serious passion in some.

Delis that cut by machine steam their meat for less time, then compensate by cutting it paper-thin, so your teeth won't have a problem chewing. My father, who grew up in Montreal but now lives in Toronto, used to ask the delis in Toronto to hand cut his meats. He would then complain that it was too tough. The problem wasn't that the counterman didn't cut it right, it was that their meats were steamed for the machine, and were going to be tougher if cut thicker. Sadly, hand-cutting is relegated to a select few delis spread across the continent, such as Kenny and Zuke's in Portland, Caplansky's in Toronto, and Jake's in Milwaukee. Katz's is the only deli left that hand-cuts pastrami in New York, and Langer's is the only one in Los Angeles. It is widespread in both Montreal and London but nowhere else. It is an art that requires skill, patience, and learning. It can be taught, but not easily, and not quickly. The masters grow old. The skill is lost.
Personally, I don't really have much love for delis... which is a bit odd since sandwiches might be my favorite type of food... it's just that I'm not really all that down with pastrami and corned beef, so the traditional Jewish deli doesn't do much for me (instead I get my sandwiches at trendy frou-frou shops like this one... so sue me). But David Sax makes such a strong case for the awesomeness of hand carving, that I may just have to give the delis of Montreal a try next time I'm up there.

I guess it's also comforting for home cooks to know that hand cut meat is really the ideal, so you don't have to covet one of those machines if you're making a lot of brisket or roast beef or whatever for weekly lunches... though most of us aren't going to be good enough with a knife to get near as thin as the experts in the videos do, but whatever. One of my longstanding goals since I started learning to cook has been to get my act together enough to cook a hunk of meat on Sunday and bake some sandwich bread to get myself off of terrible cafeteria lunches... but I've yet to get near it. The logistics of accomplishing that have proven too tough for me to this point... but now that I'm nearly semi-competent at bread baking, maybe I need to revisit that plan.