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Sustainability Run Amok

Jewish Deli: a Socially Responsible (Oxymoron) Concept?

I suppose it was just a matter of time before the Deli would embrace sustainability. A story out of Berkeley, California (where else?) in the Washington Jewish Week talks about Saul’s Restaurant and Deli that refused delivery of a truckload of pastrami because it did not meet the deli's sustainability standards. "We found out it is no longer hormone- and antibiotic-free, so we put it back on the truck and took it off the menu," explained Saul's co-owner Peter Levitt, who has been a leader in artisanal food sourcing for more than a decade. "We're going to hear a lot of backlash from our customers these next few weeks."

Levitt was speaking at the so-called "Jewish Deli Summit" that he and his business partner, Karen Adelman, last month at Berkeley's Jewish community center. The gathering, a follow-up to a similar discussion held at the same venue 15 months ago, brought together four cutting-edge deli owners from across the United States to talk about how to bring the fatty, meat-heavy, super-sized Ashkenazi deli cuisine of their forebears into line with contemporary values of health, nutrition and ethics.

"Last year we held a referendum to get permission from our customers to marry the mission of the Jewish deli with the sustainable mission," Adelman said. "In the past year there's been a real blossoming of people breaking out the concept, making it live and breathe, so we wanted to bring them together to celebrate." A sustainable Jewish deli? Isn't that an oxymoron? Not at all, these mavens insist, although they acknowledge that very few people are doing what they do.

Let's just "cut through the fat" -- sorry! Deli This is a publicity move by Saul's co-owner, Peter Levitt, to trade on the popularity in business circles of becoming more sensitive to sustainability. “Sustainability reporting’ is a broad term considered synonymous with others used to describe reporting on economic, environmental, and social impact (e.g., triple bottom line and corporate social responsibility reporting). A sustainability report should provide a balanced and reasonable representation of the sustainability performance of a reporting organization to include both positive and negative contributions.

If Saul's wants to apply sustainability concepts to its pastrami sandwich, it might consider that there are over 500 calories in the sandwich on average, half of which are fat calories. That will sustain you for quite some time. In all fairness to Saul's, its sandwiches have 6 ounces of meat rather than 12. The problem with that is there are no doggy bags.

Sustainability has been linked to ethical conduct by responsible organizations. I'm all for that. However, I do think it demeans the concept to equate it with culinary choices. More important, the Jewish deli is an icon that shouldn't be messed with. And sustainability is a slippery concept, more an approach to food than a formal standard, one that emphasizes seasonal menus, locally sourced ingredients, in-house production and ecologically sound growing practices.

Applying the motto of the great state of Texas (Don't Mess with Texas), I say: Don't Mess with Deli Pastrami. This is authentic, tender-steamed pastrami with its essential succulence, aroma and flavor. So, I say to Saul's and all those deli's out there that are thinking of messing with perfection, don't change pastrami into chazerei (look it up).

 Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, June 25, 2011

Photo Courtesy of Ethics Sage Deli