A Conversation with Ben Nadler on THE JEWISH DELI
Comic and Manga

A Conversation with Ben Nadler on THE JEWISH DELI

Whether an expert in pastrami on rye or a food lover, each reader will find what they are looking for. The Jewish Deli: An Illustrated Guide to Selected Food by Ben Nadler. The forthcoming non-fiction book is not only lavishly illustrated, but also includes several pages in a pure and simple graphical sequential narrative format (that’s right, folks: COMICS). Publication planned by Chronicle Books on July 11e, 2023, this longtime Jewish Deli enthusiast jumped at the chance to check out the book and speak with creator Nadler on Zoom. We asked everything it takes to make a successful non-fiction comic, what makes up the basics of Jewish deli meats, and of course, all about their bagel preferences!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

REBECCA OLIVER KAPLAN: What’s your favorite bagel?

BEN NADLER: The best type of bagel is an all bagel. My favorite place in New York is Ess-a-Bagel, I think they have the best bagels.

KAPLAN: What was your research process for this book?

NADLER: It was the pandemic, so I couldn’t travel as much as I wanted. There were a lot of zooms with deli owners. I actually moved to New York just as I was starting to write the book, coincidentally. So I was able to go around New York, which was very useful for me, talk to people and visit kitchens.

At first I said, “Oh, I can travel across the country and eat at all these delis.” But I couldn’t really do it. I also wanted to take pictures. But I just called everyone; everyone was really nice. I did a lot of interviews.

And I read a lot of books. I checked Kosher Nation: Why More and More American Food Answers to a Higher Authority by Sue Fishkoff, Save the Deli: In search of the perfect pastrami, crispy rye and the heart of Jewish charcuterie by David Saxand then Pastrami on Rye: An Overloaded History of Jewish Charcuterie by Ted Merwin. They were the big ones.

KAPLAN: Do you have an order for Jewish charcuterie?

NADLER: If I’m in an appetizing store, I really like to go for whitefish. I’ll have whitefish on a whole bagel. If I’m in a place like The delicatessen of Katz, you must have the pastrami. I’m going to make the pastrami over rye.

I like having a knish, I like having a hot dog. That’s kind of what this place does best. The hot dogs at by Katz are the best.

KAPLAN: I liked your chicken narrator.

NADLER: I felt like he was an appropriate mascot to guide you through the kosher section.

KAPLAN: I kept thinking, “That poor chicken is going to die.”

NADLER: I know, yeah, poor guy. I mean, cows too. Pretty graphic. We didn’t get as graphic in the book, but maybe in the R-rated version we’ll show the chicken bleeding out.

There’s so much dumping of information that needs to happen, there needs to be some kind of engaging host to guide you… That’s a lot of ground to cover.

The background information is the most comic-heavy part of the book, so it’s the densest and longest: taking you through the story in comic form before you even get to the food chapters.

The trick you follow when creating non-fiction comics is how to keep it engaging. My first book was also non-fiction, and that’s one of the first things I learned: how to translate raw information into something fun to read and watch.

KAPLAN: I know it’s also an important topic in teaching comics.

NADLER: This is one of the greatest uses of the comic book tool. The eye is drawn to something colorful, silly and bizarre; no matter what you tell them. Plus, the food designs are fun to watch.

KAPLAN: What was your access to Jewish deli meats like growing up? Are there Jewish delicatessens everywhere?

NADLER: I grew up in Wisconsin, which has a lot of Scandinavians and Germans. We knew Jews; Synagogue family friends. But it’s not like there’s a good grocery store around. We had to make trips to New York for this.

There are bagels and there are hot dogs. But in Wisconsin in the 90s, you don’t find whitefish, you don’t really find pastrami. So my introduction to this food was that it was something you would have on a special occasion if you ordered it in New York. So it was very much on a pedestal. Then you come here to New York and it’s around every corner.

I don’t want angry Wisconsin Jews emailing me, “You forgot this place! There’s a delicatessen in Milwaukee that I really like; it’s there, I don’t mean it’s not there. Just more in the big city, and more now than then.

I was surprised; I discovered a lot of Jewish delis in the South, in Houston, and in states that you don’t associate with a heavily Jewish population. People want this food. Really what I learned is that there are Jews everywhere, but it doesn’t always feel like it.

KAPLAN: What is Jewish charcuterie?

NADLER: I would say that Jewish charcuterie is an amalgam of the Old World and the New World. The Old World being Eastern European Jews immigrating to this country and trying to find a home here, combining their traditions and recipes with contemporary American ways.

And that way you get things like cheap cuts of meat that are prepared the way Irish immigrants prepare them because they’re all living together in this new melting pot. And that’s why you get corned beef. You get a lot of marinating because historically that’s how “lower class” citizens were able to prolong their meat without spoiling it. So it’s a lot of tradition, that’s what happens when you bring together a lot of immigrant cultures and you share each other’s foods.

KAPLAN: Why have bagels become so controversial?

NADLER: People take their bagels very personally. I think maybe because it’s such a Jewish food in the way it’s boiled, people are very protective of how properly a bagel is cooked. I don’t buy any of the tap water myths; I don’t think it’s real.

Bagels came about because Jews were forbidden to bake bread in many places, so they had to boil their bagels. So I think it’s very personal. People say, “We were forced to make bagels this way,” so any variation is an affront to what we were forced to do. But I’m only speculating.

But it can also be a simple mascot. People can protect their food in general, depending on where it comes from.

KAPLAN: During the COVID-19 lockdown, our local Jewish grocery store started carrying more groceries. Is there a history of Jewish delis adopting these types of strategies?

NADLER: Delicatessens and appetizer stores have historically operated as grocery stores. That’s why they’re often separate but geographically close to each other, so people can get their meat from one store and their fish and dairy from another.

The places I spoke to were making a lot of adjustments to their menu, not so much to become a grocery store as to operate as a delivery restaurant. A lot of places closed after I talked to them because I called them in 2020 when things were really bad.

And then there are places like Zabar’s, which operate like a real grocery store. This place is the best! It functions as a delicatessen and also a grocery store. Delicatessens were at first only specialized stores offering canned goods; they definitely have groceries in their DNA.

The Jewish Caterer will be available in early July 11e2023 at your local bookstore and/or public library.

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