Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

D is for disappearing delis

A dastardly culinary crime

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If the Winnipeg Police Service had a unit dedicated to culinary crimes, an investigation would be launched into our city's disappearing delicatessens.

Go back two generations, and the North End was a bastion of authentic deli cuisine, with institutions such as the Oasis, Simon's and the original Oscar's catering to a clientele of second-generation Jews.

Now just try to find some house-cured brisket with a side of homemade mustard.

Although the term "deli" is currently used to describe any casual lunch spot or any grocery that sells cold cuts, the term delicatessen -- literally, "delicious food" in German -- technically applies to a store or lunch counter specializing in Eastern European Jewish cuisine.

Pickled herring. Chopped liver on rye bread. Nova lox on a bagel with cream cheese, red onions and capers. Baked and boiled gefilte fish, with horseradish grated into a paste on site.

Such delicacies may still be purchased in cities like Montreal, New York and Toronto, where authentic deli food is considered a heritage treasure to Jews and non-Jews alike.

But the last true deli disappeared from the North End in 2001, when Simon's shuttered its doors at the corner of Main Street and Machray Avenue.

Winnipeg's remaining delis -- most notably Bernstein's, Myer's and Stewart's -- are now concentrated in River Heights. Now that the southward migration of the city's Jewish community is all but complete, it's tough to find so much as a dill pickle north of the Assiniboine River.

But even these institutions acknowledge they're not exactly the real deal. Bernstein's, one of the last places in western Canada that will serve you a tongue sandwich or a plate of bat mitzvah herring, also has BLTs and cheeseburgers on its menu.

Proprietor Marla Bernstein makes no apologies, noting food trends have changed over the past 20 years.

"When the older generation retired, nobody wanted to take over," she says. "I'm just happy we're here."

The prospects of a deli revival are dim in this city, as an entire generation has now been raised without learning the joys of minced herring or beef borscht.

"The problem is, nobody makes this stuff at home. It's difficult to do. We have a generation that doesn't know about it, so it's going to be gone," says Ami Hassan, owner of Corydon Avenue breakfast spot the Falafel Place, which makes a mean schnitzel but slings a lot more bacon and eggs.

"I remember the Oasis. They had everything. They used to smoke their own brisket, that's how good it was. It was like Schwartz's in Montreal.

"These places are disappearing one after another. It's just so hard to make a living at it: The cost of doing business is so high and the profits are so small, so do you know who stays? Only the people who love doing the job."

At Bernstein's, which turns something as mundane as chopped liver into a work of art, the titular proprietor is not too concerned. Business remains strong, even if sales of black cherry soda are not.

"When people get together and want to go for lunch, they go to a place like Earls or Moxies or Joeys for the atmosphere," she says.

"But when they want good food, they come here."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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