Al Weinberg is 89 years old. Over the course of those 89 years, Al has eaten a lot of Jewish deli food.
“I’m not old. I’m mature.”
And with maturity comes wisdom. Al is also wise. But Al’s wisdom had not prepared him for the trend of vegan delis and butchers popping up all over the place (Seitan’s Helper in Brooklyn, Faux Butcher in Nottingham, just to name a couple). How do I know? Easy. He had no clue there was a deli reimagining traditional Jewish fare right in his Chicago backyard.
For me, this could not stand. I explained to Al that his Jewish-deli take is far too valuable to go unheard--make note, your elders love hearing stuff like this--and that we urgently needed to go on a pilgrimage to Chicago’s north side, home to Sam & Gertie’s, billed as the world’s first all-vegan Jewish deli. So, on a Sunday in November, we crammed Al’s decades of deli expertise into the car and headed to lunch. (Full disclosure: Al is a friend of my mother, Sandy, who tagged along.)
There’s nothing like a trip to a vegan Jewish deli on a gray November day in Chicago.
When we arrive at Sam and Gertie’s, we notice a real commitment to the bells and whistles of an old-fashioned Jewish deli. There’s the refrigerated display case with all the fixings: whitefish salad, tuna salad, egg salad, latkes, chopped liver. There are the piles of bagels and loaves of challah. There’s even the tray of black and white cookies by the register. The menu hangs over the counter, offering corned beef sandwiches, bagels and lox, and matzo ball soup.
Al stands at the counter for a minute, soaking in the scene, before making his way over to a small cluster of tables by the front window. “Let’s discuss veganism,” he says as he sits down. “No animal. Nothing with a face. My grandchildren told me that. But what’s the point?”
Al observes his surroundings and considers his next move.
The lox is actually tomato, but the pickle is still a pickle.
At this very moment, Al is probably giving his opinion.
The glob of mustard on this corned beef sandwich is not staged.
This seems like a good spot to mention that Al claims to have had a fling with vegetarianism in the 1960s. He admits to not remembering it too clearly, and he does say he cut out veal and steak but kept eating hamburgers--but let’s not split hairs. In my book, his short-lived interest in vegetarianism some 60 years ago qualifies him even more for a free meal bought by an eccentric oat-drink company. (“I don’t think I was really that dedicated,” he confesses.)
Ready to order, Al goes for a salad with a scoop of tuna and a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Sandy, sporting a mere 72 years of deli-eating experience, gets a corned beef sandwich on rye. They agree that the texture of the corned beef feels accurate but could use a little more salt. (I got a bagel sandwich with lox and dill-pickle cream cheese, by the way.)
Just as Al digs into the tuna salad, Andy Kalish, the owner of Sam and Gertie’s, comes in and asks how he’s enjoying everything.
“The balsamic dressing is great,” Al says. “But this salad, what is it?”
Kalish reminds him it’s tuna. “It’s delicious,” Al answers. “Nice texture, nice flavor.” He later admits that despite its nice flavor and texture, the tuna salad tastes more like potato salad. “It has a lot of crunchy stuff like celery and carrots.”
The dishes without “meat” are more convincing. Al has to be told again that the cream cheese is vegan--not a cheat. “If no one would have told me, I would have thought it was cream cheese.” And he likes the mandelbrot (sort of a Jewish biscotti) so much, he goes back to buy an extra piece. “Anything that’s got sugar and flour is good.”
Al prepares to dig into his tuna salad, loaded with “crunchy stuff.”
According to Kalish, Sam & Gertie’s was founded to be a place that Jewish elders like Al, and Kalish’s maternal grandparents--the original Sam and Gertie--could relate to. He claims to have spent hundreds of hours developing recipes. Legumes and grains are used for meat, tomatoes for lox, beets for color, and vital wheat gluten, tapioca, kappa carrageenan, and agar agar to provide the fat and protein that holds it all together. Everything is treated like meat as much as possible: The lox is cured for several days, and the sliced corned beef sits in a hot water bath to keep it moist.
Kalish also says that eating at Sam & Gertie’s can be a powerful experience for customers, especially those who haven’t eaten Jewish deli for decades or have only heard about it from their parents or grandparents.
That was not entirely Al’s experience. He thought his meal was “perfectly acceptable.” Aside from the mandelbrot, there was nothing he loved. But it might have kindled a sense of nostalgia. Later that same day, he had dinner at a traditional deli. He got the tuna salad.