Pastrami Divine

Cecils Delicatessen and Restaurant
651 S. Cleveland, St. Paul; (651) 698-0334
www.winternet.com/~zodiac/cecils
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. daily

Zaroff's Delicatessen Restaurant
1130 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka;
(612) 545-9090

Hours: Monday-Thursday 9:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 9:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Sunday 9:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.

The only meal my father could ever cook was kosher hot dogs in the toaster oven, and if you ever asked me about kosher hot dogs in the toaster oven, I could write volumes: on the age of maturity when one switches from ketchup to mustard, on the best way to fashion miscellaneous bread heels into buns, on the pre-scoring methods that best achieve bread-heel curvature, on the critical point when hot dogs abandoned in the toaster oven turn to wormy curls of leather.

I can't remember my first kosher hot dog, but it's fair to say I was weaned on the things. I can't remember my last kosher hot dog because the family stopped having kosher hot dogs once my father lit out for greener pastures in the Reagan years. And why kosher hot dogs? I have no idea. Certainly not out of any religious leanings: We were, and remain, a shrimp-with-lobster-sauce sort of household. I guess it was just because they tasted the best, and kosher laws are strict enough that my father, who lived in fear of all animal parts that were not steak, could be assured that he wasn't eating anything too weird. Which is a long way of saying that when the folks who coordinate the local Jewish Film Series sent me a screening copy of Divine Food, which among other things details the how and why of kosher hot dogs, you could have knocked me over with a bottle of mustard: These things, which I know so intimately and yet not at all, have history? Have process? And moreover, still exist? In fact they do, and it's all awfully interesting.

Divine Food is a documentary about kosher delis, the koshering process, and particularly the Oscherwitzes, the family that in 1884 founded a deli-meat empire whose modern-day brands include Best's Kosher, Sinai, Shofar, and Oscherwitz Glatt Kosher. Here's the awfully interesting part: The makers of Divine Food interviewed all the people who oversee the kosher meat process (the various rabbis, butchers, and butcher rabbis), traced a pastrami from carcass to completion, and still didn't turn me into a vegetarian in the process.

It turns out that kosher hot dogs aren't merely kosher because there's no pork in them. The meat has to come from healthy cows that are slaughtered with one seamless motion using a perfectly polished knife, whereupon the carcass is inspected inside and out to make sure that it is, in fact, healthy. Then everything in the back half of the animal--everything around and behind the sciatic nerve, which runs up from the rear legs--is put aside. (Apparently this has to do with an incident in which Jacob met an angel who struck him on the leg; he became lame, and from that point forward no more hot dogs were made with the sciatic-nerve area. Go figure.)

The remaining meat is cleansed of blood: Veins and arteries are removed, and other bloody parts are carefully cut off. More blood is drawn off through a process of repeated salting and rinsing. Finally, the meat is spiced and turned into hot dogs, pastrami, salami, etc., still under close supervision.

Bottom line: Once again, the secret to good food is distilled to the inviolable rule of top-quality ingredients and careful preparation. So that's why we ate kosher hot dogs. And the strangest thing, taking into account that old saw about the squeamish not wanting to watch laws or sausages get made, and that other old saw about hot dogs being made from eyeballs and assholes, and that other one about everything but the squeak--well, watching all that trimming and supervising was sort of comforting.

It goes without saying that the tape had barely ejected from the VCR when I was canceling my plans for the day and hightailing it to Zaroff's for a gut-busting lunch of epic proportions: egg creams, pastrami, corned beef, hot dogs, potato latkes, knishes, cheese blintzes--the works. Not having been to Zaroff's for a few months, I was particularly impressed with the way the service staff and kitchen seem to have overcome the constant hiccups of the restaurant's early days: The potato latkes were seared to crisp perfection and arrived piping hot, with that hint of skin in the batter that to me verily defines homemade. The sweet cheese-filled crepes known as blintzes were plump and rich, fat as little birds and just as beguiling. (A mere $7.95 will get you a plate with three blintzes and two potato pancakes--a cheese-loving vegetarian's Ashkenazi dream date.) My one quibble with the blintzes was that the fresh-strawberry topping seemed past-prime.

Still, and stuffed as I was, I left Zaroff's wanting something more. Divine Food is chock-a-block with old black-and-white photos, old brown-and-white photos, old newspapers, even old people--and Zaroff's is anything but old. Everything about the place still seems brand-new, from the geometric wood-and-glass room dividers that descend spacily from the ceiling to the lawn of asphalt that stretches unmarred from the windows to the horizon--or at least to the Land's End Inlet across the lot. There just isn't a lot of history at Zaroff's, and there probably won't be until, by my reckoning, sometime around 2018.

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