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.

So the next day I zipped over to Cecil's, where I finally learned why so many people are so devoted to this modest little spot. Cecil's (pictured) was founded in 1949 by Faye and Cecil Glickman as a delicatessen only; the couple's grandson and Cecil's current manager, Brad Leventhal, says they added table service mainly because "all the delivery people would come by and my grandmother would always ask them: 'Would you like something to eat?' And eventually they all said: 'Open a restaurant! Open a restaurant!' So she did."

For years people had been raving to me about Cecil's and I never quite knew why. But suddenly I'm a convert to this dusky little sweetheart spot--and the fact that Cecil's carries one of the Oscherwitz family's lines of meats makes it that much sweeter. The only thing is, you have to know to order kosher, an option that costs an extra fifty cents a sandwich (on top of the basic price of $5.99 for a quarter-pound, $8.99 for half a pound, $11.99 for a hefty three-quarters). When you do, you get Best's Kosher.

Which, for my money, makes an excellent pastrami sandwich. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to see the very meat whose making had mesmerized me in Divine Food, sitting all hot and steamy between slices of fresh-baked. Ribboned with spice and scalloped with just enough fat to make it moist and tasty, it was beef's answer to really good bacon.

Which is what people have been clamoring for, Leventhal explains: "It seemed like there were a couple of years when it was all turkey and turkey pastrami. But recently we've had an influx of people who actually know what a knish is, people who purposefully hunt us down, looking for that authentic deli. We've started to reintroduce things we hadn't carried for years, like pastrami with fat on it. Some people call it Romanian pastrami, some call it the navel cut, but it's got a lot more flavor and people are asking for it like it's fifty years ago again.

"What people don't know is that when Cecil's first started in 1949 there were a dozen delis in Highland Park. The same as New York--every block had a deli, but over the years they all disappeared. Now maybe [the customers] are back."

Be warned, however: The corned beef from Best's Kosher is not necessarily what people would come back for. It's bone-dry--which makes a lot more sense after you watch the scene in Divine Food in which the Oscherwitz family's youngest son congratulates himself for winning a particularly heated battle with his father's generation over whether to include deckle, a relatively fatty cut, in packaged corned beef. The youngster won, and the corned beef became extremely lean. But he was wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong.

That's another good reason to see this movie: You get to take sides in far-off family arguments. It will be screened in succession with two other Jewish-food short films, Gefilte Fish and Hot Bagels, so consider this your chance to take a quick graduate seminar in delicatessen. As an added bonus, the Jewish Community Center will be providing a post-screening "nosh and schmooze."

Speaking of family arguments: On my way out of Cecil's, I picked up a package of Best's kosher franks. A few days later, I popped them into the toaster oven and ate them standing up, staring out the window, worrying, just the way my father used to. I don't know that I can recommend this particular exercise to you all, but it left me unsettled all week.

Divine Food, Gefilte Fish, and Hot Bagels screen Saturday, March 18 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Ninth Annual Jewish Film Series at the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Rd., St. Louis Park. Tickets are $5 general admission, $4 for JCC members, and $3 for seniors and students; call (612) 377-8330 for reservations or further information. Copies of Divine Food may also be ordered from the Deli Project Web site, www.deliproject.com. (The Deli Project is a group of writers and scholars exploring the culture of the Jewish delicatessen in America. They produced this film and are also looking to put together a book and museum exhibit on delis. Visit them, too, if you have anecdotes or memorabilia to contribute.) More information about the Oscherwitz family and Best's Kosher can be found at www.bests-kosher.com.

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