“We’re working on baby beef.”
With these words, chef Anthony Rose triggered a chorus of whispers, which rippled through the auditorium at Toronto’s Reuben & Helene Dennis Museum at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue: “Baby beef? Remember, baby beef?”
Rose was speaking at Heymish & Hip, an October panel about Jewish food in Toronto, and playing to an audience filled with gray-haired gourmands. As memories of this forgotten staple of Toronto Jewish delis were stirred, the crowd had a hard time staying quiet.
“I’ve talked to 80-year-old butchers and 80-year-old deli guys about baby beef,” said Rose, the chef and owner of a slew of Toronto restaurants including Rose & Sons, Fat Pasha and Schmaltz Appetizing, in an interview. “No one really knows what it was.”
They know the basics, of course: Baby beef was a deli item like corned beef or pastrami but made with veal brisket instead of beef, and notorious for its mysterious red exterior.
Most agree that it was particular to Toronto, though some experts claim it arrived via New York. It appeared in the 1940s and became a staple of Jewish delis across the city. Then, in recent decades, it slowly vanished as veal prices spiked.
But baby beef – and other Jewish dishes, most notably Ashkenazi specialties (the food of Jews hailing from Central and Eastern Europe) – are increasingly appearing on restaurant menus, as chefs reach beyond matzo ball soup and corned beef to introduce a new generation of diners to old-school dishes that evoke homey – or “heymish” in Yiddish – feelings. Think chopped liver, gefilte fish, kishke and p’tcha, each somewhere between grey and brown on the colour spectrum, and more unappetizing to the eye and ear than the last.
Examples of this new face of Ashkenazi cuisine abound, from the more traditional explorations of deli at Wise Sons in San Francisco, Mile End in New York, and Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg, to cheffier interpretations at Abe Fisher in Philadelphia and Mishiguene in Buenos Aires.
“I think it’s cyclical – once it becomes something that you can no longer get, people suddenly notice they’re missing it,” David Sax says, reflecting on the resurgence of Jewish cuisine in the years following the release of his book, Save the Deli, in 2009. “But there are also bigger food trend forces at play. You had the growth of other chefs going back to their own roots, so Jewish chefs who were cooking in various different types of restaurants were like ‘Hey, why aren’t I cooking my family stuff?'”
And as Jewish chefs look more deeply into their culture, they’re rediscovering more than just the easy classics. “Jewish food was a much broader thing when this great wave of immigration happened 130 odd years ago,” Sax explains. “All these other interesting foods existed that didn’t really last as the cuisine assimilated. So I think there’s an interest from a culinary perspective of digging in and bringing those back.”
Today, imaginations have turned to more esoteric, less easily assimilated ingredients and dishes.
When Rose first embarked on this path prior to opening his first restaurant, Rose & Sons, putting Jewish items on the menu was “a cheeky throwback,” he says, as he served items such as matzo ball soup alongside diner classics larded with bacon….