In the foreword to “The Lincoln Del Cookbook” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95), New York Times op/ed writer Thomas Friedman captures the restaurant’s lingering aura, beautifully.
“What was the Del’s secret recipe?” he writes. “Why is it so fondly etched in the memories of so many of us who grew up in Minneapolis in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s? Was it just the food? Of course not. The Del ‘sold’ something so much more compelling that kept its customers constantly coming back, and which is increasingly rare these days. It wasn’t knishes — it was community.”
The Berenbergs’ remarkable family business began with the Lincoln Bakery in north Minneapolis in 1935.
In 1957, a second generation launched the first of three bakery/restaurants, at 4100 W. Lake St. in St. Louis Park. A second location — “Lincoln Del West,” near what is now I-394 and Hwy. 100 in St. Louis Park — opened in 1965. A third, “South,” near France Avenue and I-494 in Bloomington, opened in 1975.
West closed in 1990, a victim to highway construction, and in 2000 the other two Dels lost out to rising property values. Twin Citians no longer had a place for Delwiches and towering strawberry shortcakes.
Fortunately, Wendi Zelkin Rosenstein, granddaughter of Del founders Tess and Morrie (Moishe) Berenberg, has spent several years — working with Minneapolis writer Kit Naylor — to distill her family’s proud legacy into a book.
In a recent phone conversation, Zelkin Rosenstein traces the origins of the restaurant’s name, discusses the impetus behind the book and reveals a few Del culinary secrets.
Q: What is the book’s genesis?
A: My zadie [grandfather] had already passed, but my baubie [grandmother] Tess and I were going over stuff that we’d seen online, people writing about the Del. I would read her all the things that people would say about it on Facebook. She was delighted, and she was also the first to say, “That recipe is wrong. Why didn’t they ask me?”
When she passed away, I really wanted to do something to honor her, and my zadie. It was a process of mourning their deaths, and living in a world without them, and without the Del. The Del really was my childhood. The book was also a way to satisfy the daily questions that I’d get from friends, and strangers. You know, “When are you going to open another Del? Do you have this recipe, or that recipe?”
I also wanted to remind people what the restaurant was about. I didn’t want it to be, “Look at what a successful Jewish family can do amid the anti-Semitic environment that Minneapolis once was,” or some kind of historical statement. I wanted it to show the accomplishment of how close a community can be.
Q: Where did you find all of the wonderful old Del memorabilia?
A: Fans of the Del, and family members — I won’t name names — are hoarders of Del swag, but no one wanted to give anything up. So I started looking on eBay, and then lots of stuff starting coming out of the woodwork, in my family’s various storage facilities. I could get mad at myself for not taking more family pictures at the time. But it was the Del. We didn’t care about us and what we were doing. It was all about the customers.
Q: Where did the Lincoln in Lincoln Del come from?
A: Honest Abe Lincoln, that’s what I was always told. My great-grandfather wanted an honest, respectable business, and a name that was recognized in the community for good values. That’s how it started.
Q: Why the “Del” and not the “Deli”?
A: Someone just shortened it, and it stayed. It was different from everyone else.
Q: You’ve got about a hundred recipes in the book. Did you have difficulty tracking down the original Del formulas?
A: I have all of the recipe cards from the chefs and the cooks — they’re stained, and written on, and they make enormous quantities. At first I was very stubborn. I was just going to take them and put them right into the book, with a conversion chart. But everyone said that the recipes had to be made for home use. In those original quantities, it’s difficult to stay true to the recipes. I tried to take responsibility for being true to the taste memory of each item that came out of the Lincoln Del. The process taught me a lot about how my family kept costs down. Baking in such quantities, it was cheaper to use shortening instead of butter, for example. For selfish reasons, some of the recipes in the book use butter instead of shortening, because it’s going to taste better. But I also leave in the information about what the original recipe called for.
Q: Are there recipes that really stand out for you? My eye — and my memory — immediately went to the chocolate pie.
A: The cabbage borscht, the apple pie, the beef barley soup. They were all comfort items at home. Unfortunately, the book isn’t going to win an award from the Mayo Clinic for health and wellness.
Q: My Lutheran mother swore by Miracle Whip, so I’ve always viewed it as an essential element to Protestant cookery, but here it is, in a Jewish deli’s cookbook. Why?
A: I know, nobody believes me, but yeah, that’s how it is. I’ve already had one person post online asking, “Is it really Miracle Whip?” It is. Another big secret about the chicken salad? It was really turkey. That’s why it tasted so yummy. They roasted turkeys, just for the chicken salad. The bones went into broth; nothing went unused. That’s from my grandparents’ background, when money was scarce.
Q: What’s the Weight Watchers/Lincoln Del connection? I loved seeing evidence of various Weight Watchers menu items.
A: I forgot who were the original owners of Weight Watchers, but I know that they lived here. My grandfather was always trying to lose weight. He would go on these monthlong trips to fat farms, and his weight would yo-yo. He walked around Lake Calhoun twice a day. He’d go early in the morning, then come to the Del, and then go again right after lunch. You could set your clock on it. He ate every meal at the Del, and since the whole Del was his kitchen, he figured, “If I’m going to have all of my meals here, let me try this, and offer it to other people.”
Q: What’s your first memory of the Del?
A: It’s probably from the West Del — my father ran Lincoln Del West, near the Ambassador Hotel and the Cooper Theater — when I was maybe 4 years old. I was taught the numbers of the seating chart, given a little apron that was my size, handed menus and told, “OK, go seat these people over in booth No. 5.” And that’s what I would do.
Q: What was it like to grow up in a famous restaurant?
A: I didn’t think it was famous, I just thought it was where you went. Kind of like going to Lake Harriet and the band shell, and everyone shows up, and you’re bound to run into someone you know. If the food on the table at home wasn’t takeout from there, we were at the Del, every night. That was our dinner table.