Eating Between the Lines
By Ronna Welsh, Fri., Dec. 31, 1999
The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook: Recipes and Memories From Abe Lebewohl's Legendary New York Kitchenby Sharon Lebewohl and Rena Bulkin
Villard, 225 pp., $24.95
As you head south on Second avenue, past Lindy's (famous cheesecakes), you'll enter the East Village, home to some of Manhattan's (almost) affordable housing, cheap ethnic eats, and piercing salons. Approaching the 2nd Avenue Deli, at East 10th Street, you pass neighboring Judaica shops and Mediterranean delis. In this section of town was once the epicenter of the dynamic Yiddish theatre. A bit further south continues the Lower East Side, the original Jewish neighborhood in New York. Abe Lebewohl, 2nd Avenue Deli's original proprietor, was a strong political voice of the Lower East Side, most notably, a primary benefactor to the Yiddish theatre, as he was to many charitable organizations in town. Abie, as he was known to his friends (and everyone was his friend), is remembered as much for his ceaseless generosity to the downtrodden as for serving up the best pastrami on rye.
Abe Lebewohl's work was his life, which ended in senseless murder three years ago on a routine trip to the bank. The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook, assembled postmortem by his daughter Sharon Lebewohl and deli patron-food writer Rena Bulkin, captures an appetite for living and giving that characterized this "Jewish Mother Theresa's" life. It, along with a major deli renovation, fulfills Abe's own dreams for his work.
Lebewohl's food (the restaurant has unaltered its original recipes) is mostly no-nonsense, no frills. Chopped liver is liver chopped, no hardboiled eggs. It is so unadulterated, it might even broach the objectionable. Whitefish salad contains pureed fish, no onion, no pickles. Pastrami and corned beef lay by themselves on rye. Mostly the food stands well enough alone, if only because there's no stomach room left for anything else. The deli's portions are expectantly huge. Chopped liver takes the shape of a small hill. Sandwiches strain under the weight of their fillings. Matzo balls tower above their accompanying broth. Baked apples, the size of a baby's head, sit top-heavy in a dessert dish. Regrettably, the deli's customers may be accused of favoring quantity over quality. The deli's food isn't bad. Simply, it is pricey and unexceptional. Pastrami is tender, though tame with salt. Consommé is light, but bland. Pickles are dully under-brined. I would return for an oily, gutsy corned beef sandwich (it's perfect) and for a knish, a self-contained mashed potato puck. But I might choose to pick something from their cookbook instead.
Expectantly, the cookbook gives us the lowdown on schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), the Jewish equivalent to olive oil, and, in effect, it's got all the goods -- tzimmes, kugel, coffee cake, kreplach -- that a traditional Jewish meal requires. There are plenty of recipes containing fruit and nuts, typical of Jewish holiday food. The cookbook includes recipes from catering events and celebrity friends. But even some regular menu items were a bit embellished. The book's chopped liver, for instance, contains hard-boiled eggs and coarsely chopped onions. And many recipes are variants, like a vegetarian alternative to organ meat. Of course, it's not so much the variety I enjoy, but the success with which every recipe is put together. The roast chicken with Challah-apple stuffing, carrots with raisins, prunes, and pecans, broiled chicken livers with onions, and sour cream coffee cake were all good. Each recipe was simple to follow, the proportions were accurate, and the baking time just right. Having edited my share of bad recipes by now, I know this is quite an accomplishment. In this sense, the restaurant's cookbook exceeds the restaurant itself.
If the deli's quality has diminished in recent years, it's not for lack of attention. A recent renovation gave the place a needed lift. One notable change since Lebewohl's death is the reward notice for his murder, a crime still unsolved, which remains fixed on the restaurant's front door. Of course, while I can't testify to other details of the renovation, I bet that the makeover hasn't changed some key things: the prominent position of deli case specialties to go; the geometric tile mosaic on the floor and the brown-paneled walls; the automat machine offering four nickels' worth of matzo balls; Yiddish theatre posters; and photos of family and friends. The 2nd Avenue Deli, scarred by a hideous crime and notable for visiting celebs, is a place to check out when you're in the city. But The 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook offers a glimpse of Jewish New York that may, in fact, taste better than being there.