I have craved many things since the pandemic began: Oysters, pristine and glistening on a bed of ice, nuanced flavor on the half-shell. Cocktails, made for me by someone who is not me, the rhythmic sound of the shaker Pavlovian in its soothing effect. Dim sum, the delicately crimped dumplings, tender rice rolls, and deftly fried items beyond my pay grade as increasingly disinterested cook and bottle washer of my humble abode. Thai salads, French pastries, sushi, bubble tea, every kind of noodle on this green earth.
Until recently I gave little thought to the food I would expect to crave the most: the food of my culture, the food on which my foundational memories are based, the food that most ought to be comfort food — what I’d turn to when the going got tough. The food of Ashkenazi Jewish America. But matzo balls? Blintzes? Kugel? They weren’t on my radar. This isn’t sustenance I seek out. Instead, it comes to me, served at celebrations and sorrowful occasions alike.
When I learned Mamaleh’s Delicatessen in Cambridge (along with sister restaurants State Park and Vincent’s Corner Grocery) was delivering preorders to suburban synagogues, it felt like the food was coming to me, or at least to a location nearby. Suddenly the craving arrived, by power of suggestion. I was overwhelmed by the need for bagels and lox, whitefish salad, pastrami, Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray tonic. I wanted these things from the bottom of my soul.
Buying deli off a guy in a truck in the parking lot of Newton’s Temple Shalom in the middle of a pandemic might be the most Jewish thing I have done since my bat mitzvah. I’m not religious. I can’t remember the last time I went to temple. But this felt right. During times of mourning, Jews come together over platters of smoked fish, balancing grief in one hand and a heaping plate in the other. The country is now sitting shiva for more than 200,000 people, and counting.
So I sat down to a bowl of Mamaleh’s matzo ball soup. The broth tasted just right, which is to say like my mother’s, wobbling with the life force of the 76 or so chickens she puts in the pot. The matzo balls tasted good too, if wrong, which is to say not like my mother’s. The right matzo ball texture is always and only the one you grew up with; these were dense and plump where I prefer them light and elegant. Nonetheless, they were satisfying, and I ate every bite.
I ordered everything bagels, which I think are the only kind of bagels, although onion and garlic are acceptable backup options. (Cinnamon-raisin are good toasted with butter, and salt can be eaten fresh and plain, like a soft pretzel.) I can never decide between whitefish salad or Nova with a schmear, as many capers as I can embed in the cream cheese, and red onion sliced so thin it’s translucent. This occasion was no different, so I got both and didn’t regret it. If I have faith in anything in this world, it is the merit of leftovers.
My son had never had pastrami before, and I knew he would love it, warm between slices of seeded rye lightly slicked with mustard. I offered the sandwich I had brought him. “You have to try this,” I said, perhaps too enthusiastically. My agenda was transparent: indoctrination into the ways of deli. He declined. Do we push our children to be like us, to love what we love? I let him off easy, in the hopes that next time he’ll decide to try it himself.
When I was a kid, my family would eat at the Gold Lake Deli, where a big bowl of pickles graced every table. The half-sours were my favorite. Sometimes we’d drive to the Lower East Side and buy pickles from the barrel, their garlicky brine leaking in the trunk of the Dodge Dart where they were stowed, perfuming it forever after. When we visited relatives in Philadelphia, we’d go to Murray’s, where someone would grouse that Hymie’s was better these days; or we’d go to Hymie’s, where Team Murray’s would then have its say. The truth is, it was all good. Or maybe it wasn’t. It’s burnished by time and memory, and the harder this kind of food becomes to find, the better it seems to taste. Jewish delis are disappearing. The Gold Lake Deli — neither famous nor particularly special but simply there — shut down decades ago.
A few years back, a wave of new-school delicatessens appeared on the scene, places like Mamaleh’s, Rose Foods in Portland, Mile End in New York, Wexler’s in L.A. Started by younger chefs, they serve grandparent food made modern. Which is to say, it often harks back to even earlier generations, handmade and small-batch. The food has a little swagger, a point of view. It tastes “artisanal.” It isn’t simply there, the millionth rugelach on a tray with other rugelach, the same as someone has been making for years.
The food is delicious. But it doesn’t taste like the food of my youth. That’s OK. Culture moves forward. The nostalgic past is a construct. It’s naïve to pretend otherwise. In Hebrew school, they taught us that Nazis no longer exist, that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again. Not too many years down the line, kids would be caged in this country, men would march in the streets with tiki torches.
I don’t know how we mourn together as a nation when half the time we can’t even agree what we should be mourning. Maybe over bagels and lox in a temple parking lot on a perfect autumn afternoon. Whatever your comfort food is, I hope you find some soon.
For information on upcoming suburban deliveries, go to www.mamalehs.com.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.