Canter’s Deli is the quintessential, Los Angeles comedian’s hang out spot. At 1:00 AM on any given night, you’ll find a group of comics sitting in a booth, shoving pastrami in their mouths, workout out bits and complaining about some mysterious rash that might be cancer.
“It’s a classic stomping ground,” says Jackie Tohn, musical comedian and star of GLOW on Netflix. “The authenticity is what attracts comics to Canter’s. Comics are magnets for things that feel authentic.”
Since it’s open twenty-four hours, Canter’s, which has been family run since 1931 and includes a restaurant, bakery, and side-bar, sees the full spectrum of customers from all walks of life — celebrities looking for a throwback to old-school New York City dining, partiers who need to soak up some of the alcohol left after last call, Jewish grandmothers on the hunt for a taste of the old country, and comedians shoveling in comfort food to fill the void left by bombing.
“You can tell the truth there,” explains Jake Weisman, executive producer and star of Comedy Central’s Corporate. “The wait staff is not particularly nice to you, but they are very real and honest.” He jokes that it seems like everyone who either eats or works at Canter’s has done so for about 200 years. “Like you were born there and eventually you’ll die there, and that’s fine.”
“I feel like I’m hanging out with a bunch of Bubbies I never knew I needed or wanted,” adds Mike Glazer, host of GLAZED at the Hollywood Improv. “We’re so taken care of while my comedian friends and I make dumb jokes and try to cope with the fact that we’re god damn nervous wrecks all the time.” He loves that the old, crotchety wait staff know exactly who they are, even seating them in the same booth every time. “And then, without even asking, bagel chips and pickles and ranch just hit the table. We barely have to say anything and they’re like ‘we got you, baby. You want the usual?’”
With Hanukkah (the holiday Adam Sandler and literally nobody else made cool) starting on December 2nd, I asked the Canter’s regulars to share their favorite Jewish culinary traditions. I managed to get the corned beef and self-loathing out of their mouths for five minutes, just long enough for them to tell me their favorite Hanukkah-related foods. L’chaim!
LATKES, According to Jake Weisman
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Fa la la la latkes! How was your night 1?! We ate traditional buffalo wings 🍗(hey, they are fried and ranch is practically sour cream), exchanged presents 🎁, and lit the menorah 🕎 even after we realized we own no lighters or matches. Oops! Also played @tooshort The Hanukkah Song on repeat. Peep 👀 at my stories for #bts!
“Being Jewish is all about being funny and annoying and constantly talking over your family,” says Weisman. “It’s just inhabiting a certain culture and way of being that sometimes involves scoliosis and mostly involves a lot of warmth and annoying nasal voices.”
For his go-to Hanukkah meal, Weisman always comes back to latkes, or “potato pancakes,” which are grated potatoes fried up in a pan mixed with eggs, flour, salt, baking powder, and pepper. Weisman adds, “I like to have sour cream and applesauce with latkes. However I just found out I’m lactose intolerant so no more sour cream, which is a huge thing to have to deal with, and I’m a victim.”
MATZO BREI, According to Chase Bernstein
Matzo brei is matzo, or unleavened bread, that’s broken up into small pieces, and then scrambled together with eggs and milk. Add a little sugar on top when it’s done cooking, and you have what comedian Chase Bernstein describes as a dish, “on another level.” She says matzo brei is an under-appreciated dish, that begs to be incorporated into more Jewish holiday meals. “I feel like it just doesn’t get enough traction!”
For this year’s “Hanukkah Hang” at her mother’s house, Bernstein says besides matzo brei and sushi, there’s sure to be plenty of gelt. Historically, Hanukkah gelt was money given to poor men and women who could not afford to buy Hanukkah candles, so they would have the money needed to celebrate the candle lighting tradition without having to feel ashamed of their poverty. In modern times, gelt are gold coins made out of chocolate, as a fun treat for children. Chase and I love them because they’re this weird currency we pass around that doesn’t really make sense. Kind of like Jewish Bitcoin.
KASHA VARNISHKES, According to Jackie Tohn
Jackie Tohn* describes herself as “Jewy,” as evidenced by her stash of hard candies, her self-deprecation, and “the tissue that’s always in the cuff of my sleeve.”
Tohn, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, says her mother always put on Hanukkah gatherings that felt like Thanksgiving dinners. “My mom makes a lot of really good eastern European, Jewish, pogrom foods. What my mom makes is culturally to food what Yiddish is to a language; it’s from all over the place. It’s mish-moshed together, thrown in a bowl, and it’s always funny, like Yiddish.”
For her Thanksgiving-meets-Hanukkah celebratory dinners, there’d be turkey, but also a smattering of other traditional Jewish foods. Maybe sweet noodle kugel, string bean casserole, beef stew, potato nik, or kasha varnishkes: toasted kasha, which can be buckwheat or oats, schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, caramelized onions, and varnishkes, which is Yiddish for bowtie pasta.
*Tohn would also like to know if this article could be any more niche.
CINNAMON KUGEL, According to Jared Goldstein
When I asked the comedian Jared Goldstein in what way he identifies as Jewish, he replied “the day I learned the term ‘Agnostic,’ I went home and told my parents ‘I think I’m Agnostic,’ and my Japanese mom said to me ‘I didn’t convert to Judaism so my kids can be Agnostic. You’re Jewish.’” Way to knock Jewish mothering out of the park, Sharon Nomiko Furuya Goldstein.
On Hanukkah, Goldstein’s family always finds a way to include Kugel. His grandmother’s recipe, he comes back to Kugel year after year because it reminds him of being a kid in Brooklyn, loving Judaism before he even really knew what it meant to be a Jew culturally.
Kugel is an egg noodle dish that combines cottage cheese, milk, sour cream, sugar, butter, and vanilla extract. Some versions include cinnamon and raisins. A favorite, Goldstein explains, because “it’s so delicious, and such a weird food that you just wouldn’t find anywhere else. It’s the kind of food that’s great when it’s rubbery and old in a tin. It’s still good even when it’s not fresh.”
STUFFED CABBAGE, According to Ester Steinberg
Ester Steinberg, whose album “Hebrew School Dropout” debuts in March and is the star of Oxygen’s Funny Girls, was the only Jew in her area growing up in Tampa. She says being the “token Jewish girl” helped her embrace her culture and wear it as a source of pride.
Steinberg hosts a monthly comedy show at Canter’s Kibitz Room, a venue and bar attached to the deli that hosts music performances, events, and shows, which she says felt like a natural fit. “It was super on brand for me, and it’s the best comedy hang. Since it’s open twenty-four hours, comedians are always going there and eating.” Given the Kibitz Room’s history of hosting legends like Guns N’ Roses, Joni Mitchell, and Fiona Apple, Steinberg thought hosting her own show there would be “iconic.” The constant potential for a hundred-year-old man to wander in and tell the comics to “keep it down” was probably also enticing.
For Hanukkah, Steinberg is all about the stuffed cabbage at Canter’s. “The cabbage is like a taco shell, and inside is ground meat and rice, and seasoned so it’s really good. Then it’s wrapped in cabbage and put in a tomato stew type of thing. Actually, it’s borscht. It sounds gross but it’s good.”
KNISHES, THE SKY-HIGH SANDWICH, AND MATZO BALL SOUP, According to Mike Glazer
“My connection to Judaism is through food,” says Glazer, so it’s no surprise that he gave us three essential foods for Hanukkah. Start off with a rye bread, mustard, and turkey sandwich that’s “as big as your head.” Then pair it with matzo ball soup, which is chicken broth and a seasoned dumpling made out of matzo meal, bound together with egg and chicken fat. Add a knish, a doughy pastry filled with mashed potatoes and onion, and you’ve got a Glazer-approved Hanukkah meal that might actually make you clinically dead.
He didn’t stop there. He went on to talk about latkes, rugelach, “oh blintzes! A good cheesy blintz? Get out of town.” He described it as almost like a savory crepe. “It’s a really thin batter, and filled with delicious cheese.” After a few minutes on the phone, I realized Glazer might sexually identify as bagels and lox.
Canter’s, to me, feels like the perfect metaphor for the Jewish story, as I know it. The wait staff, in the most endearing way, always looks like they’re about to plotz. The open mic in the Kibitz Room has been on its last leg since its inception years ago. The pastrami and collective clientele neuroses could stop your heart. But somehow, it all just keeps going. With comedy, community, and a lot of starchy food eaten at Hannukah, Jewish people, no matter how small or vulnerable our population, will continuously find a way to prevail.