Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chefs Journey to Discover Americas New Melting-Pot Cuisine | Chapter 21 of 26 - Part: 1 of 7

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Chapter 15

The Palace of Pastrami

Would you believe me if I told you the best Jewish deli in America is in Indianapolis, that somewhere between Katz’s Deli in New York City’s Lower East Side and the chandeliered cafeteria of Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles is a palace of pastrami that has been upholding a tradition of kosher cured meats for more than a hundred years? I, too, was incredulous when I first heard about Shapiro’s Delicatessen. When I think about the pillars of Jewish culture, Indiana doesn’t immediately come to mind. And what does it really mean to be the best, anyway? I can’t claim I’ve done a formal side-by-side taste test of the matzo ball soup at Shapiro’s against the versions at Canter’s or Barney Greengrass. Truth be told, I don’t know if anyone does herring better than Russ and Daughters. And the kreplach at Zingerman’s can’t be beat. But what if I told you there was a kosher deli in the middle of the Hoosier State that arose out of a cultural utopia of diversity and stayed true to its family roots over the next four generations, untouched by rampant tourism and gentrification, untarnished by the culinary whims of the passing decades? Well, that’s Shapiro’s.

Shapiro’s Delicatessen is split into two sections. One is for take-out meats, and the other is a cavernous cafeteria-style deli that can seat up to three hundred people. The line gets long, so the best time to go is around 11:30 a.m., just before the lunch crowd descends. You begin your dining experience by grabbing a plastic tray and silverware at the start of the buffet line. You pick up your dessert and salad first, from a refrigerated display case. This is confusing if you’re new to Shapiro’s, but after a few trips, you realize the ingenuity of it. Think how much more fun ordering would be if every restaurant asked you to order dessert first. Imagine contemplating a strawberry cheesecake or banana pudding before considering the appetizers. All the desserts are served on unbreakable plastic plates, each one individually wrapped in a layer of protective plastic wrap, as if your grandmother were behind the line packaging it herself.

As you move down the line, you look up to see a menu board of sandwiches. One of the more peculiar inventions of the modern deli world is the naming of sandwiches after famous people. How am I supposed to know what comes in a “Woody Allen,” and do I really want to think about him as I’m diving into a corned beef on rye with creamy coleslaw? At Shapiro’s, the menu is pragmatic: the items are simple and clearly labeled. A corned beef sandwich is called just that. In fact, the menu board reads like that from any other pedestrian deli, but once you smell the pastrami for your sandwich as it’s being sliced before your eyes, you understand you are someplace special.

While you wait for your sandwich meat to be sliced, you can choose from a steam table of sides. There’s everything from German potato salad to noodles with sour cream to latkes (potato pancakes). I’ve learned to get two desserts: if the line is long, I can chow down on a plate of cinnamon rugelach while patiently waiting for my sandwich to be assembled. At the end of the line, you get a cup for your fountain drink and then pay at the register. It’s quick, cheap, and easy.

Brian Shapiro is the fourth generation of the Shapiro family to run the restaurant. His office is behind the take-out section. It includes large windows so he can peek out and see the activity in the deli. His wife, Sally, runs the website and media side of the business. Despite having a few offshoot locations, this Southside cafeteria, the original, is their flagship. One afternoon, I find Sally behind the counter using a large camera to take a photo of a corned beef sandwich on a white cutting board. She has a small frame, and her camera is as big as her torso. The sandwich stands tall and proud on a plain Shapiro’s plate. There is no hand-stitched linen napkin carefully made to look randomly placed under the plate; nor is a vintage fork effortlessly balanced on the plate’s rim, as though someone were about to dive into lunch but realized she’d forgotten to pour herself a glass of rosé.

I immediately disturb Sally’s concentration. “Can you tell me the history of Shapiro’s again?” I ask her. One can find this story on the deli’s menu and website, but I like hearing it from Sally. She has a jovial way of recounting the familiar milestones while sprinkling in small anecdotes that you won’t find in the brochures.

Shapiro’s Kosher-Style Foods Delicatessen has been open since 1905. Its founders, Louis and Rebecca Shapiro, fled Odessa to avoid the anti-Jewish pogroms that swept through Russia. When he first arrived, Louis worked in the scrap metal business, then a mostly Jewish industry and booming because of an innovation in steel processing that made it practical to work with used steel. You didn’t need much to get started—just a wagon and the willingness to work long hours.

But Louis hated it. Back in Odessa, he had sold food and flowers at a market, so he started to sell provisions from a pushcart: coffee and tea at first, then flour and sugar. He expanded into meats and produce. Louis and Rebecca stored everything he sold in a little apartment they had at 808 Meridian Street. One day, the floor caved in under the weight of their inventory. They then decided to buy the store below them and turn it into a grocery and bakery. Business was good. Even during the Great Depression, the grocery continued to profit. After Prohibition ended, Louis Shapiro began to sell beer at ten cents a bottle. Customers would have a few beers and ask if there was anything to eat. They’d complain, “You sell bread and you sell meat. Why don’t you just make me a sandwich?” So he did. Rebecca started to sell the dishes she made, mostly soups and potato salads. Soon, they added a few tables and chairs. The neighborhood was transforming from a mostly residential one to an industrial one. The grocery business was declining, but the restaurant business was buzzing, so the family focused on growing the cafeteria.

Louis retired in 1940, citing old age and back problems. He left the store to his sons, Abe, Izzy, and Max. Max has been integral to Shapiro’s growth over the last twenty years. While Izzy was officially the boss and Abe spent most of his time in the kitchen, supervising the recipes, Max manned the front of the house. He worked there past the age of eighty, and even today, many longtime customers still remember him. “You would never go more than a minute without Max filling your water or asking how the food was” is how one customer remembers him.

Before officially retiring, Max convinced Mort Shapiro, his cousin, and Mort’s son Brian to join him in running the business. That was in 1984. Max died in October of that same year, knowing that Shapiro’s was in good hands. When Mort Shapiro died, in 1999, his son Brian became the sole proprietor and the fourth generation of Shapiros to run the business.

“You see all these pictures?” Brian points to the vintage photos that hang on the walls. “They aren’t just for show. My DNA is in these photos. I still remember my great-uncle Max. I am the last of the generation who actually saw how hard he worked.”

Brian has a full head of curly gray hair. He is in his sixties, and his face shows the decades of exhaustion that come from running a restaurant this big. He agrees to sit with me as I eat lunch and interview him. He asks me what newspaper I write for. I tell him it’s for a book, and he seems irritated. He is on the phone with his veterinarian. One of his dogs is sick, and he’s worried about his medicine. While he’s on hold with the doctor, he looks down at my tray of food.

“You gonna eat all that?” he whispers toward me incredulously.

I like to eat a lot at Shapiro’s. My lunch spans two plastic trays: matzo ball soup, a Reuben sandwich, a chopped liver sandwich, a smoked tongue sandwich, cabbage rolls, deviled eggs, boiled greens, and banana pudding.

I take a few bites of each plate while Brian finishes his call. The chopped liver sandwich looks gray and emotionless, but it is the perfect temperature of chilled but not too cold. The tiny speckles of fat are unctuous, and the liver tastes fresh and luxurious. I don’t need teeth to enjoy this sandwich; it literally melts in my mouth. The smoked tongue is the opposite: it is toothsome and briny, the smoke just a whisper, and the texture of the fatty tongue, sliced thin and layered two inches high, is pure decadence. The cabbage rolls are sweet, and their texture is as tender as a child’s tears. And the pastrami is some of the best I’ve ever had. Dare I say, at the risk of getting hate mail for the rest of my life, better than Katz’s?

I ask Brian what makes the food taste so good.

“We make everything from scratch. We do it the old way, everything cut by hand. We make so much chicken stock every day; it goes into everything—and schmaltz, a lot of it,” he adds, referring to the rendered chicken fat used for frying or spreading on bread.

He stands up to adjust a framed photo on the wall. It is of Mort.

“The older generations, they had the immigrant touch. They did things with their hands. They weren’t afraid to work hard. I feel a duty to them.”

“How has it lasted so long?” I inquire.

“Are you a chef? You own a restaurant?” He is onto me.

“Yes,” I tell him.

“All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”

“So there is no chef here?”

“We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of a group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This . . .” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.” Brian gets up to fix a flickering light in the dessert case.


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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