While many comics get their material from headlines, L.A. comedian Seth Front draws his inspiration from another source: deli menus. For the past two years, Front has crisscrossed the country giving talks on the culinary history of American Jews of Eastern European descent, using delicatessen foods as markers. From immigrant pushcarts on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1880s, to hip new venues, Front traces the journey of beloved foods like knishes, pastrami and latkes.
Last weekend, Front was on his home turf, at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, where the big crowd ate up his combo platter of humor and history. And afterwards, appropriately, they noshed at Canter's Deli truck, which Front describes as “a pushcart of the 21st century.”
The son of a reform rabbi, Front, who previously worked in the film industry, says he had an epiphany “at a place where good things always happen to Jews. A Chinese restaurant.”
During his meal there, he contemplated a Chinese Zodiac placemat: “I looked up, and I realized, everyone in the restaurant was Jewish. It was not Christmas day. And all of a sudden, the clouds parted, the angels sang … And I thought, what would a Jewish Zodiac be? It wouldn't be the Year of the Dragon or the Year of the Ox, it would be the Year of the Bagel and Year of the Lox.”
Front came up with 12 iconic deli symbols to create his Jewish Zodiac, launching pad for a gift business. For example: “If you're born in the Year of the Bagel, like I am, you're pliable and always bounce back, although you feel something's missing in your center.” Or, if your sign is the Year of the Schmear: “You blend well with others, but often spread yourself too thin.”
His serious research into Jewish cuisine led to the current lecture tour, which focuses on four stages: the arrival of deli food and immigrant culture; the adaptation and rise of the New York deli; the process of assimilation; the present, with nostalgia for authenticity. Front discovered that the transformation of the American deli “totally parallels our Jewish journey through four generations.”
A quintessential deli food was — and still is — the knish, a food that immigrants brought with them to Ellis Island.
“We were so poor in Eastern Europe, we knew how to do something with potatoes in 15 different ways. One of them was the knish,” says Front.
Perhaps the most famous New York knish maker was Yonah Schimmel. Says Front: “His story is essentially the story of every Jewish immigrant who went into the food business. He had a great recipe and a pushcart.” Eventually, in 1910, that led to the still-thriving Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery. (As reported in The New York Times, Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder famously wrote in the popular New York Magazine column “The Undergound Gourmet” in 1968 that a politician cannot get elected to office in New York City, without first visiting the Lower East Side and having a photo-op with a knish.)
When entertainers of all faiths began hanging out in delicatessans, the kosher-style deli came into being, meaning customers could get cheese blintzes and corned beef on rye in one place (Observant Jews do not mix dairy products and meat.). These new-fangled delis also introduced towering sandwiches. Observes Front: “Within a generation the pastrami sandwich goes from symbolizing the hopes and dreams of our ancestors to now symbolizing a heart attack on a plate.”
As much as he loves old-school delis, Front also is a fan of the emerging artisanal deli movement, exemplified by places like Mile End Deli in Brooklyn and Beauty's Bagel Shop in Oakland, with chefs putting a fresh twist on an old idea: “It's nice that now there are newer delis coming out, with a smaller menu, but doing the greatest hits, doing them well, doing them all in house.”
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