By the time I came along in the 1960s, most of my big Jewish family hadmade it. They started out at the turn of the century as junk dealers,but now they had money, they had leisure, they had enough taste not toseem all that Jewish. But my Aunt Esther and Uncle Abe weredifferent--people of modest means and modest tastes. While mygrandmother lived in a beautiful home on a bluff overlooking LakeMichigan, her sister Esther lived in a rented apartment on CaliforniaAvenue in Chicago. Esther would call my grandmother every day--one ring,then hang up. My grandmother would call back so her sister did notincur the toll charges to call the suburbs.
Esther and Abe's living room furniture was wrapped in clear plastic foras long as I can remember. For many years, I assumed it was so beautifulthat they just didn't want to unwrap it. Es was not much of a cook; shealways brought the same thing to family gatherings: mandel bread, akind of Ashkenazi Jewish biscotti popular at Passover. Esther wouldmake it year-round. They would come in repurposed Fannie May candy boxes, kept closed with arubber band. This was pre-biscotti in the Midwest, and I just assumedher cookies were stale.
I thought of Esther last Friday night when I visited Mort's Deli, thisdecade's attempt to make a Jewish deli stick in the west metro. Itfeels like a repurposed sports bar, not a grimy yellowing deli. Estherwould say, "Oh, it's nice, look at it." And it's my people's food, upand down the big menu: There's everything from kasha to kishke (andplenty of burgers and strawberry salads in between), there's thetakeout counter, there's the Carnegie Deli meats and cheesecake (notbad) . . .
Mort's best asset may be that it is on the periphery of one of theseediest-looking strip malls in the area--trimmed out in corrugatedmetal with peeling white paint. That's good deli environs. Ponder therecent west metro Jewish deli ventures: Sasha's, Louie's Habit,Zaroff's--all good-to-excellent, all freshly scrubbed and clean andupscale, all out of business. (Cecil's molderson in Highland Park.)
But there were signs of those ventures and their bete noirs: theeager-beaver teenage servers who wouldn't know kugel from kreplach witha sign posted on them. There were criminally dense matzo balls, drypastrami and brisket, bland salmon cakes covered in a sweet sauce. Andthen there was the microwave oven getting such a workout in thekitchen--not good.
Mort's is a week old, and I don't want to prejudice anyone against goingthere. But early signs are it needs better recipes, more respect forthe integrity of its ingredients, and a staff who can play the part.But then again, I'm not sure what the Minnesota Jews (an assimilatedbunch if there ever was one) and all the goyim in Minneapolis and the 'burbs want. Authenticity is not necessarily on top of the list if it'snot even food you ate as kids.
My friends Alex and Nina, raised in NYC, joined me at Mort's andwondered if I intended to order gefilte fish, some kreplach, a knish,or some kishke. Truth be told, us Chicago Jews gave that stuff up along time ago. It was the food of our ancestors: leaden, bland, ethnic.Bagels, pastrami, and my grandma's chopped chicken liver were thelimits of my Hebrew culinary explorations. Today, most of Chicago'sgreat delis have closed, too. The Midwest is an inhospitable place forJewish food.
I hope Mort's makes it. I hope it improves and folks embrace some ofthe Yid fare. But if history is any guide, Mort's will be a sports barin two years. And in the end, I think that has less to say about ourdelis than it does about us.
Now go call your grandma. She's thinking of you.