“Can the American Jewish deli be sustainable? How does sustainability impact the future of deli cuisine and traditional culture?” These were the topics addressed by the “Referendum on the Jewish Deli” held at the North Berkeley Jewish Community Center. Organized by Berkeley dining institution Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, the lively conversation explored tradition, change, and sustainability as it pertains to the way we eat.
The co-owners of Saul’s, Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, are committed to offering a more sustainable menu – which means sourcing foods locally, respecting the seasonality of produce and meats, and limiting the use of industrially processed ingredients. However, their incremental menu changes have been met with a wide range of customer responses including intrigue, frustration and horror.
While Saul’s has no intention of becoming anything other than a Jewish deli – they just want to create the Jewish deli of the 21st century – it was clearly going to take more than a simple menu makeover to realize their goal. These proposed changes clearly touched a chord that reached deep into people’s perceptions of cuisine, far beyond the basics of taste and nourishment.
It was clearly time to open the conversation to the community. Saul’s invited a few luminaries to join the discussion: Michael Pollan, journalist and author of best-selling books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, (one of my personal idols); Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, sustainable business expert and author of The Truth About Green Business; and Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms in West Oakland. Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s Good Food and owner of Angeli Caffe, moderated.
The panel’s consensus was that the issue of sustainability in Jewish cuisine (perhaps most cuisines?) reaches way past the fork. Tradition, memory and perception are equally as important as the health and quality of the food we consume. To get through to people and really change the paradigm of food consumption, we must tell a salient story, one that is routed in the tradition of where we have been and enlivened by the vision of where we ultimately want to go.
As a professional communicator, I experienced the core issues as being about dialogue, expression and making connections. In order to encourage customers to embrace the vision of a deli that respects tradition–pastrami will NEVER leave the menu–and adopt a more sustainable, holistic approach to cuisine (like including a Winter Green Salad on the menu), it is essential express that vision as a story, a philosophy, and a passion-driven mission. It’s not about getting rid of the icons of Jewish deli cuisine, but about reshaping them in a way that ensures future generations will be able to enjoy the traditional food of our grandparents, all without sacrificing the environment or their health.
With this panel, Karen and Peter made important steps to ensure they won’t have customers pitching fits over the absence of cold borscht soup in December and, instead, have folks eager to try new additions like their stellar house-made sodas and sustainably produced corned beef. All present all agreed: that means good things, and good food, for everyone!