By Max Abrams
Dec 07, 2022
“Do you have anything fat-free or sugar-free?” a customer recently asked the guy behind the counter at Kaufman’s.
His reply: “Yes — if you go up to the register, they have napkins.”
“She was so insulted,” says Kaufman’s owner Bette Dworkin. “I was hysterical.”
At this Skokie deli, patience runs as thin as the sliced pastrami. If you encounter any gruffness, think of it as an indoctrination into the playful underbelly of Jewish deli culture.
“My concept of a deli, which unfortunately shows my age, is where the deli guy talks back at you,” says Dworkin, who began working here in the early 1990s after her parents purchased it in 1984.
The chalky-colored, two-story structure sitting squarely in a Dempster Street plaza is one of the last places in the city still serving time-tested insults alongside rye bread, gefilte fish and noodle pudding made from recipes dating back three generations.
With post-World War II roots, Kaufman’s — and many of its recipes — predate nearly all existing Windy City delicatessens. Maury Kaufman, a Holocaust survivor who migrated to Skokie along with tens of thousands of other Jews, opened the deli in the 1960s as a safe haven where survivors could eat and work.
“Everyone could speak their own language,” Dworkin says. “There was no judgment, no issue if you happened to have a number on your arm.”
Twenty years later, Dworkin says Kaufman sold the deli to her parents. By the time she was in control, the deli had endured a monthslong labor strike, a salmonella outbreak and a 2011 kitchen fire.
Longevity, however, sits in the deepest marrow of this deli’s bones. And to this day, Dworkin says Kaufman’s conquers every challenge, including the pandemic.
“You gotta put on your shield and go to battle every day,” she says. “There used to be a whole bunch of other delis, and they’re not here anymore.”
A large part of that battle is as simple as serving quality food consistently, Dworkin says, as the omnipresent challenge of inflation keeps costs high. Even so, she still makes it possible to enjoy the menu as it was 50 years ago by carefully tweaking family recipes and recipes inherited from the store. While there are some she adjusts and dials in, Dworkin says, others “we don’t touch.”
“With the exception of probably one or two things, most of what we do is made here. We smoke our own fish, we smoke our own turkeys, we cook our own corned beef,” she says. “We make all of our own breads from scratch, we make all of our own pastries from scratch. There’s no margarine or shortening allowed in the building. It’s all butter and cream cheese and sour cream.”
As Skokie evolved over time, so did the deli. Its clientele used to be almost exclusively Jewish, Dworkin says, but its popularity eventually transcended the shrinking community and attracted newcomers.
“There’s a very strong link between this business and the community. But I don’t think that’s limited to the Jewish community,” she says. “It used to be, but that is absolutely no longer the case.”
However different from the past, the 2022 crowd still loves the staples. Corned beef, lox, and tuna fish salad are Kaufman’s most popular items, she said, in that order.
After nearly a half-century in Chicago’s Jewish deli business, Dworkin has made mistakes. But, she says, she always learns. One holiday, she replaced Kaufman’s brisket — beloved by the customers but not her — with salmon, chicken and tenderloin.
“Stop bucking the fact that all these people like brisket and it’s part of the tradition,” Dworkin says to her past self, in retrospect. “I couldn’t even give away a single tenderloin.”
A year later, the brisket was back for good.
“If we screw up, we’ll back it up. I’m a firm believer in that,” she says. “Trust me, I’ve comped enough in my life.”
4905 Dempster St., Skokie; 847-677-6190; kaufmansdeli.com
Max Abrams is a freelance writer.