Problem number one: To make old-timey pastrami, the way the original preindustrial New Yorkers did it, you have to use the navel: a fatty belly cut akin to bacon on a hog. It's got thick streaks of fat that ensure the meat stays moist.
At Saul's, a New York–style Jewish deli in Berkeley, California, co-owner Peter Levitt learned it's nearly impossible to use navel without going broke. Levitt, a former Chez Panisse chef, makes some essential deli products in-house: sodas, pickles, kreplach. But when it came to pastrami, the traditional ingredients were out of reach. The navel used to be a cheap cut of meat. Nowadays it's expensive, thanks to demand from Asia. (In China and South Korea, the navel is prized.) Adding to his problems was Levitt's desire to find sustainably raised navel—after all, Michael Pollan is a regular at Saul's.
For a few weeks, while he was trying to locate the right navel, Levitt took pastrami off the menu. A Jewish deli without pastrami? You can imagine how well that went over. For nearly two weeks, servers wore buttons on their aprons reading "Pastrami Under Construction." Some customers were pissed, and Levitt continues to get calls from people asking, with trepidation, if pastrami is still "not on the menu."
When Levitt was finally able to source sustainable navel, it was cost-prohibitive because the meat is so fatty that the usable portion from one slab of navel is very small. There's a reason why most pastrami these days is made from brisket, with a tendency toward dryness. And now Saul's is too.
Problem number two: If nobody's making "real" pastrami anymore, how are you supposed to know what it's supposed to taste like? Sort of a funny question, but that was a real conundrum for Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom. In late 2010 when the two former college buddies started Wise Sons, a pop-up Jewish deli in San Francisco, they knew they wanted to make their own pastrami, but they had no models to follow. Nobody they knew was making honest-to-God nonfactory pastrami, so they had no one to learn from. They had to turn to the Canadians for help.
Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, opened by Canadians Noah Bernamoff and his wife, Rae Cohen, in 2009, makes its own Montreal smoked beef. (Canada never lost its tradition of delis smoking and curing their own beef the way America did.) Mile End's product was as close to traditional pastrami as Beckerman and Bloom could find. The most noticeable thing about it was the intense smokiness that most American pastrami has lost.
Using the Bernamoffs as their guide, Beckerman and Bloom began to experiment. After trial and error, they developed an authentic-tasting recipe. First the meat (they experimented with navel but soon abandoned it for brisket) gets "wet cured" in brine and pickling spices for a week. Then it sits another couple of days on a rack, coated in powdered spices, until it dries out and develops a crust (the technical term is pellicle). Then it smokes for six to ten hours over hickory chunks.
At the end, they get meat that's both smokier and more beefy-tasting than factory pastrami, that's chewier, and that has an almost creamy texture from fat marbling. After nearly two weeks of work, it better be good.