Despite what you may think, the woman in the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally who says, “I’ll have what she’s having” isn’t looking to have an orgasm in the middle of a restaurant; she just wants a sandwich so good that it makes you cry out in ecstasy. And you can only get that in a Jewish deli like Katz’s, the one in Sally. But what if you’re not familiar with Jewish delis, or know what’s different about them from regular delis? Where can you go to learn about Jewish delis? Well, okay, there’s a movie, but given the title of this piece, you should know where this is going: to my email interview with Ben Nadler, the writer and artist of a new graphic novel called The Jewish Deli: An Illustrated Guide To The Chosen Food (hardcover, Kindle). L’chaim.
I’d like to start with the text. What is The Jewish Deli about? Is it a history of Jewish delis, a guide to the best ones in the world, a story of how a corned beef sandwich became a superhero after watching his parents get eaten in a back alley and he now fights sandwich-related crimes…?
I’ve had kind of a hard time with this question because it covers so much ground, but I think the best answer is that it’s an all-encompassing appreciation for Jewish deli food. So there’s a lot of history and spotlights on some famous establishments, many explanations of what the food actually is and how it is generally made. It’s meant to demystify the food to a newcomer and also just celebrate the culture with fans. If it makes you want to get a pastrami sandwich or a bagel then I’m gonna call the book a success.
A crime fighting sandwich would be tight though, maybe better suited for a movie franchise.
Don’t give James Gunn any ideas… Anyway, where did you get the idea for The Jewish Deli, and what made you want to present it as a graphic novel as opposed to a prose one, or a documentary, or, I dunno, an epic poem or video game?
Making graphic novels is just my favorite thing to do. I was doing some illustrated burger reviews for fun, and it made me want to try my hand at a food book. Jewish deli food happens to be my favorite, while also being sort of underappreciated and maybe misunderstood. Plus, I was kind of trying to weasel my way into getting paid to eat.
So is there a reason you decided to make it about Jewish delis as opposed to all delis? I mean, sure, if you did, you’d end up writing an entire book about the #10 at Langer’s in Los Angeles, but that could’ve been cool. Well, researching it would’ve been, anyway.
I wanted to include the story of the Jewish immigrant, and I felt some responsibility to make my contribution to the preservation of the culture. It’s such a specific combination of the old Eastern European ways and the new American melting pot that really interests me. I’m not really a non-fiction writer, so if I’m going to “write the book” on a real subject I guess it’s gotta be something that’s in my DNA or I’ll feel like I’m full of BS.
How much research did you end up doing either before or while writing this book? And by “research,” I don’t mean “eating corned beef sandwiches”?
Man, I did a ton of research. My original plan was to travel all around the country and eat everywhere and talk to a lot of people, but the pandemic hit right as I started researching so I ended up just calling so many delis and talking to the owners. But the thing about making a graphic novel is in addition to doing the factual research for writing, you also have to do image reference research. So that meant getting very familiar with what the tenements on the lower east side looked like, or what it actually looked like when they were making mustard out of plants, or how the knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s are shaped.
And, uh, how many corned beef sandwiches did you eat while researching and writing The Jewish Deli?
Like ten billion and it rocked.
Non-fiction graphic novels are not uncommon, but most of the ones I’ve read have been memoirs or about historical events, they haven’t been about a specific item like Jewish delis. Are there any non-fiction graphic novels that you think had a big influence on how you wrote and structured The Jewish Deli?
I can’t say really there were any specific books that influenced The Jewish Deli, I see a lot of people out there making beautiful illustrations of food. My first book was non-fiction, so I had some experience taking real history and ideas and turning them into comics.
What about fictional ones?
There are countless fictional graphic novels that inspire me in general. My friends and peers are putting out incredible books now, both with publisher and on their own. Anything by Nick Drnaso I am a fan of, Noah Van Schiver, Lale Westvind. These are just artists and writers I love that I can’t necessarily draw a line from to my deli book, but I think about them ever time I’m drawing.
How about non-fiction prose books?
The biggest helps for me when writing this book were Pastrami On Rye by Ted Merwin and Save The Deli by David Sax. Those guys did a lot of heavy lifting for me when I was trying to piece together a narrative.
Another book I think is great is The Dairy Restaurant by Ben Katchor. Beautiful illustrations, too.
And then, what about non-literary influences; was The Jewish Deli influenced by any movies or TV shows? Like maybe Deli Man or that scene in When Harry Met Sally…
How did you know! I watched Deli Man, then I got to have a very fun talk with Ziggy himself for the book. When Harry Met Sally is obviously the best movie ever. I watch a lot of Seinfeld, too, so that seeped in there. There are so many food movies I love: Big Night, Tampopo, Eat Drink Man Woman, to name a few.
Moving on to the art, the visuals are stylized and a bit cartoony, especially where the people are concerned. Why did you decide to go this way with the art, as opposed to something more realistic looking?
That’s just the way I draw. I guess this book has a few styles that shift a little depending on how the artwork is being used, like say for a big sandwich close up or a deli profile. I wanted this book to be light and fun and engaging, so hopefully the cartoonyness of it all will serve its purpose.
So, who do you consider the biggest influences on how you drew The Jewish Deli?
It would have to be those people I mentioned before when I was talking about my fiction influences. A big influence on me that I didn’t mention before is Maurice Sendak, though it might not look like it comparing our work. I just have to name him as one of my favorites ever.
And how often, while looking at the photos you’d taken for research, did you give in to temptation and go out for a sandwich?
It doesn’t take much man, I’ll tell you that. Especially living in New York where the sandwiches are endless.
Obviously, The Jewish Deli was written so I would get hungry and eat lots of deli and then die happy but also quickly, and thus leave you all of my Rush CDs. But I guess the book might also educate people who are unfamiliar with Jewish delis. What do you hope non-Jews will get out of this book, and what do you hope people who are either Jewish or Jew-ish will get out of it?
For the non-Jews or just the unfamiliar, I’m hoping I can tantalize them enough to support a Jewish Deli. These are places that I would like to stick around for a while, and sometimes I worry. So everybody get out there and get some pastrami.
For my fellow Jews, maybe I can just sort of high five you about how awesome our food is, and if you wanna talk bagels I’m here to talk bagels.
Also, everybody give me your Rush CDs.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Jewish Deli?
It makes a great gift! Who doesn’t love looking at pictures of food? It’s fun comics too! Lots of good stuff, 10/10 highly recommend.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Jewish Deli, what non-fiction graphic novel that someone else wrote would you suggest they read while waiting for their corned beef on rye to arrive?
They could go check out anything by fellow food lover and graphic novelist Lucy Knisley.