Between the Rye: A Conversation with David Sax

Published: April 17th 2010
in Culture » Books

Author David Sax
Pic: McClelland & Stewart
Book cover Save the Deli
Pic: McClelland & Stewart

David Sax fell in love with delis as a child and first began researching its history as a university student in Montreal. In the past two years he has established himself as the world’s foremost expert on the delicatessen and has created an avid, dedicated network of deli lovers through his website, In addition to a one-night gig cutting pastrami at Katz’s, he has worked as a journalist with credits in such publications as The Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, The Walrus, GQ,, Rolling Stone, Wine Spectator,and The New Republic. Sax was born in Toronto and now lives in Brooklyn.


Where did this love of deli come from?


To be honest, I don’t recall the first time I ate deli food, but as a kid we ate at Yitz’s Delicatessen in Toronto on a weekly basis. Sometimes we’d go after synagogue on Friday nights, and other times it was on Sundays. I didn’t realize until later how much it surrounded me. My lunches were almost always turkey, corned beef, or salami sandwiches with Yitz’s meat and bread. Our family picnics were mostly deli food. When my parents came to visitors’ day at summer camp, they brought deli. My father had a deep and abiding love for the stuff, being a dyed-in-the-wool Montreal Jew, and that seeped into the fabric of my being. The regular trips we’d take back to Montreal to visit my grandparents were his chance to educate me at places like Schwartz’s, Snowdon Deli and Wilensky’s. Montreal is where I first tasted mustard and rye bread and the possibility of combining them with steaming smoked meat. Once that hit my lips, I was a goner.




How did you come up with the idea for the book?


Back at the turn of the century (the twenty-first), I was studying at McGill University in Montreal. Aside from sleeping in till noon most days and taking my friends on impromptu deli tours, I did a small amount of studying. One particular class was Sociology of Jews in North America, which, as a Jew in North America, seemed like it was made for me. The professor, a great man named Morton Weinfeld with a greater mustache, allowed us to pick any topic we liked for our term paper, and, crucially, we could do it with a friend. While most of the other students picked serious topics (the Holocaust, Jewish assimilation, etc.), my friend Mitch Dermer and I settled on deli, chiefly because we thought we’d get a free sandwich or two out of it. There wasn’t much source material to go on, so we ended up interviewing several deli owners around Montreal and Toronto and by phone in New York. The information from those interviews, mainly that the deli was in precipitous and continual decline, possibly facing extinction, set the idea for the book in motion. We got an ‘A’ on the paper. If we’d gotten a worse mark, I’d probably be a lawyer, like Dermer.




Jewish deli isn’t exactly diet food. How’d you deal with the onslaught of calories, fat and salt?


This is the question I get asked by friends most often. When I was researching the second third of the book, I drove around the United States eating at up to five delis a day, every day, for two months straight. I knew from the get-go that if I didn’t institute some form of control, I’d die by my second week. So I ate small portions, a nibble of chopped liver here, a bissel of knish there, a few bites of a Reuben. It was more of a grazing nosh than a gargantuan fress, though I often found myself devouring dishes that were truly spectacular. I mean, just try and resist finishing a Langer’s pastrami sandwich or a blintz from Rose Guttman in Detroit. It’s impossible.




Sure, but didn’t you gain at least a few pounds?


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