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May 13, 2005

Get a Life - May 13, 2005

My mother is Jewish, and my father is Catholic. By the time people are my age, they have likely picked a side. By the time they are in eighth grade, they will have likely picked bat or bar mitzvah or Communion. Instead, when asked about religion, I have kept on with the "I am half-Jewish, half-Catholic" to this day.

To be honest, I am neither, and I wasn't really raised to be either. Instead of Easter gifts, I got "spring" gifts as a kid, since—unlike the Christmas/Hanukkah duo—Passover does not pair well with Easter. Note that the spring gift one year was a bunny.

My grandmother blows out the menorah candles for fear that the house will burn down, but she makes a mean blintz. Matzo balls, noodle kuegel, kishke, lox, kreplach soup, potato pancakes: these were the most "Jewish" things about my upbringing. I am not a New Yorker, and these foods aren't accessible outside of the boroughs, let alone in the land of Caterpillar tractors that is Peoria, Illinois.

For me, the food was always homemade, and it was strikingly obvious when I came to college that Max P. was not stock pot-ready. I could get my hands on good lox and a reasonable potato pancake in Chicago, but the harder-to-pronounce delicacies are also harder to find. In Chicago, it is imperative to seek out a good Jewish deli. Imagine my surprise to find one a stone's throw from places I've been going to for years, just off good old Rush Street.

I don't consider the stretch of Rush between Oak and Division much of a neighborhood, but Ashkenaz Deli is undeniably a fixture for those who live or work in the area. The staff is warm with a little edge. While they greet regulars by name, my friend was instructed to "elaborate" when she ordered her sandwich combo. A poster picturing a bagel and three metal locks hangs across from the register, advertising Sunday morning's most popular menu item. I was enticed by the harder-to-come-by offerings, though, and spent far too long examining the glass case filled with potato salad, gefilte fish, and mounds of cream cheese before making my decision.

The matzo balls are light. The noodle kuegel (a sweet noodle, egg, and cinnamon concoction that is then baked and cut like a lasagna) is moist throughout and crispy on top. The servings of pastrami and corned beef in the sandwiches can be measured in inches. Not having to wait in line for an outdoor table for Sunday brunch is divine.

While I have little experience with religion, I have a lot of experience with food. In fact, it is probably safe to say that food is my family's religion. Sundays are marked not by church services but by an uncommon family dinner because my dad has time to cook. In the end, I get my serving of chicken soup—with matzo balls—for the soul.

Ashkenaz Deli

Address: 12 East Cedar Street

Phone: (312) 944-5006

Directions:

Via CTA: CTA bus #55 Garfield Westbound to Garfield. Transfer to Red Line toward Howard to Chicago. Walk east on Chicago Avenue to Rush Street. Turn left on Rush and walk north to Cedar Street. Ashkenaz Deli is next door to Big Bowl.

Via car: Lake Shore Drive due North. Turn left onto Chicago Avenue. Turn right onto Rush. Turn right onto Cedar. Ashkenaz is on the left.