"You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy's," declared a 1965 Manhattan billboard advertising a popular brand of rye bread. A fatuous illustration accompanying the slogan depicted a grinning Indian chief noshing a delicious slice of Levy's. Deli owners in every New York borough cribbed the clever catchphrase, taping placards in their front windows that read, "You don't have to be Jewish to eat Jewish food." Passers-by were persuaded to drop in for their first tastes of kugel, kreplach and knishes.
Delis have become as American as diners, ice-cream parlors and roadside stands peddling Georgia peaches and hot boiled peanuts. Consumers in this country spend $40 billion a year on kosher products, including Coca-Cola, which obtained kosher certification in 1937. The word "kosher" is from the Hebrew kasher, "to make fit." Thus kosher foods are considered pure and proper to eat. "Trayf," on the other hand, means the food in question is not kosher and is therefore forbidden, whereas "pareve" denotes neutral foods, including eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables and grains. Most delis are not strictly kosher but instead call themselves "kosher-style"-- that is, they offer many kosher foods but do not observe all of the rigid, often arcane dietary laws for keeping kosher, such as using separate sets of kitchen equipment to prepare meat and dairy products. (This precept is based on the Old Testament admonition not to seethe [boil] a kid in its mother's milk.)
We recently treated ourselves to a few tidbits at Protzel's, Pumpernickle's and Kopperman's, places with a kind of coffee-shop ease that lend themselves to daytime meals but may be too informal for dinner. Takeout dishes, though, make for a nice early supper at home. Our first stop was Protzel's, where washed-out black-and-white snapshots attest that the sturdy Toledo butcher's scale has stood in the same spot atop the meat case since 1954. Protzel's seems no more a deli than a market, its shelves a peculiar jumble of Mr. Potato Head mugs, Harley-Davidson cookie jars, canned soup and packaged halvah (a Middle Eastern sesame-and-honey confection). We headed right to the sandwich counter and ordered the Gladney Special, a fresh, floury Kaiser roll (supplied by Pratzel's Bakery, whose similar name is merely coincidental) heaped with salami, Swiss and soft folds of peppered beef (lean eye-of-round). House-made potato salad and sweet oil-and-vinegar slaw were ideal complements.
With my feet propped on the chrome rungs of a red-vinyl stool at Protzel's counter, I ate my first bowl of matzo-ball soup. Called knaidlach, matzo balls are spongy dumplings made with eggs, schmaltz (chicken fat) and matzo meal, ground from the unleavened bread that's traditionally eaten during Passover. Matzo is called the "bread of affliction" because it symbolizes the Jews' flight from slavery in Egypt, so hasty an exodus that there was no time for the bread to rise. At Protzel's, the soup consists of a single knaidel -- pulpy as bread pudding and large as a baseball -- steeped in chicken broth with a few bobbing carrot and celery slices. We also ordered whitefish, a fatty freshwater species related to salmon. Protzel's version of the fish, tossed in a creamy dressing and spread on rye, had a flavor so intense it reminded us of bacon. We preferred the subtler recipe at Pumpernickle's, which was like tuna salad with a smoky kick. Protzel's dishes up hefty portions, so we wrapped the leftovers and strolled out nibbling an upside-down cupcake dipped in smooth, shiny chocolate frosting. We asked the young man behind the counter whether the confection was Jewish. "No," he replied, "I think it's just a St. Louis thing."
Protzel's worn, grimy shop, typical of delicatessens such as New York's famous Katz's and regarded as part of their character, contrasts with Pumpernickle's scoured, tidy quarters. We bought several cold cuts and layered them on bialys, circlets of bread named for Bialystock, the Polish city in which they originated. A bialy looks like a bagel (from böugel, the Old German word for "ring") but is less chewy, with the yeasty taste and light crumb of a dinner roll. Pumpernickle's house-smoked turkey and brisket (the cut of beef taken from the breast portion) have a mild flavor, ready to be spiced up with mustard, horseradish, grilled onions or peppery bacon. The deli's kosher corned beef, so called because the meat is cured with "corns" of coarse-grained salt, is striated with fat and sliced as thin as pancetta. We sampled a variety of sides, such as a pickled green tomato, which has the snappy texture of a cucumber and the bitter vegetal edge of a dill spear. We shared a potato knish, a round, shiny pastry filled with rather dry mashed potatoes. For dessert, bite-sized triangular rugalach tasted like fresh Pop-Tarts -- admittedly an oxymoron -- right down to the unidentifiable red fruit filling that might have been cherry or raspberry or strawberry.
At Pumpernickle's we ate sable, a fish with slick, burnished skin; a deeply smoky flavor; and firm, glossy flesh. Like lox -- Jewish-style smoked salmon -- sable's surface is brushed with red dye, but its interior is left white, giving the fish the garish luster of an Easter egg. We also bolted silvery fillets of herring pickled in a white-wine "sauce," a thin brine similar to the oceany liquor pooled inside a raw oyster. Herring, a soft-boned saltwater fish that's sometimes netted young and packaged as sardines, is one of the most elemental of foods. In fact, the meager diet of Central and Eastern Europeans in the Old Country consisted mainly of bread, potatoes, onions and a little herring.
The first two evenings of Passover feature ceremonial meals called Seders, and Pumpernickle's serves special dishes for the occasion, including carrot-and-sweet-potato tzimmes (a casserole sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon), gefilte fish (quenelles of fish forcemeat suspended in a gelatinous fish stock) and honey cake. The restaurant also has an extensive breakfast menu with table service, but for that meal we moved on to Kopperman's.
In business since 1897, Kopperman's is a deli, restaurant and wine shop. Breakfast is offered all day, so we began our late-afternoon meal with cheese blintzes (crêpelike rounds daubed with farmer's cheese and folded into puffy envelopes), sour cream and strawberry preserves. We sampled but didn't finish a peppery latke, or potato pancake, oozing with oil. We did polish off its delightful accompaniment, a finely puréed house-made applesauce laced with cinnamon. Finally we sank our teeth into a toasted bagel smeared with cream cheese and piled with smoked Idaho trout, tomato and red onions.
After our satisfying breakfast, we ogled Kopperman's deli case. The food on display is more cosmopolitan than the fare at Protzel's and Pumpernickle's. Nevertheless, Kopperman's ordinary items are among the most fetching. We took home a succulent row of fatty, peppery baby back ribs, gently seasoned with a dry rub of garlic and spices, and a scoop of the deli's special egg salad, a simple mixture of roughly chopped hard-boiled eggs, diced celery and mayonnaise.
The international spread at Kopperman's reflects multicultural influences on Jewish cuisine. You can find kosher lamb curry on the buffet line at a bar mitzvah, watch the chef roll kosher sushi at a Japanese restaurant and download kosher Ethiopian recipes from the Web. You can even book a kosher safari or have fresh kosher bison steaks delivered to you overnight. But despite all the sophisticated choices, perhaps at this very moment there's a Sioux in South Dakota with a hankering for old-fashioned kosher corned beef on rye.