Delicatessen researchers explore slices of history Project chronicles Jewish tradition

June 04, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

If the Jewish family deli survives, it may one day have to thank the brisket at Martin Lev's Edmart Delicatessen in Pikesville. For it was there that the oven-roasted beef of L. John Harris' mother met its match.

Harris, 49, is the director of the Deli Project, a national exploration into the history and success of the Jewish food phenomenon once so central to many neighborhood shopping districts. The project is being directed by the Judah Magnes Museum of Berkeley, Calif., in collaboration with the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

The old-fashioned family deli, where hearty, traditional fare and time-tested recipes once assured a vigorous clientele, is under siege these days, Harris says. Often the younger members in a deli family do not want the long working hours. Some of the customers fret about fat calories. Others don't want unapologetically plain and unpretentious food.

But at the Edmart, in the 1400 block of Reisterstown Road, the tradition thrives.

There is the brisket, for example -- a moist, oven-roasted sliced beef with a hint of garlic, served on rye, maybe with only a little horseradish or a touch of the homemade house mustard. It goes for $4.95. A quart of chicken matzo-ball soup is $4.95. The popular lunch special is the all-beef hot dog at $2.95. Many customers order it slathered in sauerkraut.

"This is the best brisket anywhere outside of my mother's," Harris said during a recent visit. He was accompanied by Barry Kessler, curator and assistant director of the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

The Edmart is a gustatory shrine, where generations have sought the venerated cabbage soup, pastrami, corned beef, pepper relish, rye bread, lox, bagels, pickles, smoked fish and the house specialty, beef brisket, which insiders know to order with its crispy and very tasty outside crust left on.

The shop was founded in 1958 by the present owner, Martin Lev, whose father, Carl, and his partner Jacob Sussman had a deli in the 900 block of E. Baltimore St. from 1926 to 1951. Many of the old East Baltimore recipes made the trip to Pikesville from the heart of the city's old Jewish neighborhood.

"We use the word 'haimishe' -- that roughly means old-fashioned, tasty. That's what we are trying to do," said Lev.

"I knew this place would be good when I walked in the front door," Harris said. "It has the right smell."

Earlier in his Baltimore visit, Harris stopped to eat the chopped liver and smoked white fish at Caplan's Delicatessen in the 8600 block of Liberty Road in Randallstown. He said both dishes were "among the best served at a traditional deli."

"When I got out of the service, I opened a sub shop at Caroline and Madison streets that catered to the Hopkins Hospital crowd. Then I moved out here in 1962," deliman Herb Caplan said.

Harris is by trade a food writer and cookbook publisher. For many years, he produced books with a "California food slant" -- single-subject titles on foods that were enjoying a culinary vogue -- olive oil, ginger and American country cheeses.

"Those book subjects were the antithesis of the Jewish deli," he said.

After years of writing and cooking the foods of the 1970s and '80s (he once wrote a whole book on garlic), Harris decided it was time to return to what he knew as a child in Los Angeles. He looked back to the old neighborhood deli.

The Deli Project is a new effort by the Magnes Museum, which is working with other institutions, especially the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland. Harris plans a full study, a documentary film, publications and traveling museum exhibit to "celebrate the food and folkways of America's Jewish delicatessens."

Harris defines a "full-service" Jewish deli as being an amalgamation of several food traditions: a neighborhood grocery store, a takeout counter, a restaurant and an "appetizing store," a type of store most often found in New York where special kosher fishes, especially smoked fish, are sold. Certain candies also are featured at these appetizing stores.

"We want to figure out what Eastern European Jews brought with them, how the delicatessen business operated in the Old World and what the earliest delis in America were like. So far we think the earliest delis were strictly takeout, without a restaurant component," Harris said.

He stopped by a number of other Baltimore delis: Lenny's, on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills; Attman's and Weiss on Lombard Street in East Baltimore; the recently revived Nate's and Leon's near Oriole Park downtown; the Mary Mervis and Barron's counters in Lexington Market; and the Suburban House in Pikesville. He also toured Saval Foods, a major commercial food purveyor of pastrami and corned beef, and interviewed retired Baltimore delimen Jerry Tucker and Duke Bergerson.

"My sense is that the delis that exist today in Baltimore like the Edmart and Caplan's are closer to the older, original New York delis in that they service a more local, neighborhood clientele," he said.

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