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The Great American Road Trip (kosher deli version)

When the great American tradition of the road trip meets the great Jewish tradition of the deli, we get the Great American Deli Schlep.
Key Takeaways
  • There’s nothing more American than a road trip, but some are more original than others.
  • Illinois biker Steve Goode last year went on the Great American Deli Schlep.
  • Following a unique trajectory, he visited the best Jewish deli in each state.
Hungry customers lining up outside of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, the best deli in Michigan according to Nosher Magazine, and a stop on the Great American Deli Schlep. (Credit: Ken Lund, Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Halfway through Blazing Saddles, a waggonful of terrified Black homesteaders is confronted by a warlike band of Yiddish-speaking Indians. But no blood is shed. “Zeyt nisht meshuggeh,” says the chief, staying the tomahawk in the hand of his fellow warrior. It’s one of the subtler jokes in this 1974 send-up of Western movies. By identifying Jewish-American culture — then still somewhat on the edge of the mainstream — with Native Americans, the perennial “Other” to early American society, the message was that there is common cause (as well as comedy) in alien-ness.

But the scene, and the movie itself, is more than a coalition of minorities sticking it to The Man. Different from Mel Brooks’ other genre parodies, Blazing Saddles is an early exploration of whether “popular” (i.e. “White”) narrative forms can be adapted to star people who don’t tick all the usual boxes. Nearly half a century later, a lot of water has flowed under that bridge. But a curious tension remains between the normalization of diversity and the expectation that everyone more or less stays in their lane — or rather, the surprise when they don’t. This map is an interesting example.

It celebrates the delicatessen, or deli, that typically Jewish addition to American food culture*. But it does so using an All-American rite of passage more associated with hedonistic hard rock than with the Hebrew High Holidays: a cross-country road trip on motorbike.

Kosher road trip

Enter the Jewish Motorcycle Alliance, an organization whose chapters have names like “Kosher Hogs,” “Hillel’s Angels,” and “Shalom and Chrome.” Steve Goode, a resident of Deerfield, Illinois and a JMA member, has a penchant for long, themed rides. In the years since his retirement in 2012, he had gone on three major bike trips: visiting all of America’s national parks, each of the 48 contiguous states, and the country’s four “corners.”

His latest long-distance trip across America, in 2021, was inspired by a map from The Nosher. In 2018, this magazine devoted to Jewish food featured a map of the best Jewish deli in every state. Mr. Goode connected the dots et voilà: he had the itinerary for a 15,000-mile road trip, starting at Manny’s in Chicago and ending 75 days later at Jake’s in Milwaukee.

Naming it “The Great American Deli Schlep,” he partnered with Mazon, a Jewish non-profit aiming to end hunger for people of all faiths in both the U.S. and Israel. (According to the organization, the number of Americans living in food insecurity has more than doubled due to COVID to about 80 million.)

Connect the dots: a map showing the route of the Schlep and a list of the locations visited. (Credit: Map by Steve Goode, reproduced with kind permission)

“I decided to take the two lane/back roads to each location,” says Mr. Goode. “However, I found out that it was best to jump on the expressways once I was within 40-50 miles of my destination since most of the delis were in large metropolitan cities.”

As per the requirements of a successful road trip, Mr. Goode encountered a wide range of weather, people, landscapes, and traffic hazards. And, of course, generous helpings of top-notch nosh, from 42 Jewish eateries across the Lower 48. (If you know of any distinctly Jewish delis, grocery shops, or food festivals in Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, or Wyoming, Nosher would like to hear from you.)

Ten highlights from the itinerary:

  • When it opened in 1979, Chompie’s Restaurant in Phoenix was the first Jewish deli in the Arizona desert. According to legend, one of their first customers was moved to tears when seeing an egg cream on the menu.
  • The General Muir Deli in Atlanta is named after the refugee transport ship in which the owner’s grandparents and mother arrived in New York in the late 1940s.
  • Opened in 1905, Shapiro’s Delicatessen in Indianapolis is one of the oldest delis in the country. Four generations on, it’s still owned by the same family.
  • Stevens & Stevens Delicatessen in Louisville, Kentucky has sandwiches named after celebrities, Jewish (the Seinfeld, the Spielberg) and otherwise (the Arnold Hamanegger).
  • Stein’s Deli in New Orleans is an Italian- and Jewish-style deli that imports its bagels from Davidovich in New York’s Lower East Side.
  • Started in 1915 and now owned by the fourth generation of the same family, Attman’s Deli in Baltimore is in what is known as “Corned Beef Row.”
  • Both a bakery and a deli, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan “makes what some call the best Jewish rye bread in the country.”
  • Find Nevada’s finest Jewish deli inside — where else? — a casino: the Atlantis in Reno.
  • BernBaums in Fargo, North Dakota adds an Upper Midwest accent to traditional deli food, for example chopped liver with apple compote, or blintzes with lingonberry sauce.
  • Feldman’s Deli in Salt Lake City, Utah looks like a ski chalet and features events including “Old Jews Telling Jokes Night.”

Mr. Goode called his trip “a fascinating cross-section of America.” Not only did he raise a considerable sum for charity, the Great American Deli Schlep also demonstrated that, when it comes to mapping and traveling across America, well, there are countless different ways to slice that bagel.

Strange Maps #1173

*: The delis on this list are Jewish in the cultural sense, and serve what can be described as “kosher-style” food. That doesn’t necessarily mean the food they serve is kosher in the religious sense, that is, prepared in strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws. 

For more on Mr Goode’s bike trip, check out this article (and TV news item) from ABC 7 Chicago.

Got a strange map? Let me know at [email protected].

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