What could possibly be better than a 75-day, 15,000-mile motorcycle ride around America? How about visiting the best Jewish deli in almost every state along the way? My journey, which took place last summer, gave a whole new meaning to that popular motorcycling motto, “Ride to eat, eat to ride.” It echoed in my head as I threw a leg over the seat of my Honda Gold Wing each morning for two and a half months.
It all started with a suggestion by a fellow riding buddy of mine, Roger Burton. He knew that I love long-distance riding, and he forwarded me an article published on The Nosher website with a map listing the top Jewish deli in nearly every state. On previous rides, I had ridden to the four corners of the U.S. (14,000 miles), to all of the lower 48 states (11,500 miles), and to nearly all of America’s national parks (17,000 miles; read “One Ride, 47 National Parks”). This new challenge was right up my alley.
When I discussed the trip with my wife, Judi, she suggested contacting MAZON, a Jewish nonprofit that fights hunger in America through advocacy and public policy change. The idea was to partner with MAZON and use the ride to raise awareness and funds to help alleviate hunger. When I called someone at MAZON, they loved the idea … right after having a few laughs because they had never heard of a Jewish biker before.
We decided to call the ride the Great American Deli Schlep, since “schlep” is a Yiddish word for carrying something heavy or awkward, or a difficult journey. And we split up the responsibilities. I created the route, did the ride, visited the delis (and ate the food!), took photos, and wrote a blog (with editing assistance from Judi). MAZON did the behind-the-scenes work, such as creating a logo and donation webpage, printing up materials, contacting the delis, promoting the ride on social media, and contacting print and media outlets for interviews.
Jewish delis aren’t known for low-calorie fare. Before the trip, my friends said I would gain 40 pounds and my cholesterol would skyrocket. I got lab work done before and after the trip, and I share the results at the end of this article.
My journey started on June 1, at Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen in Chicago, near where I live. It was a picture-perfect day: 75 degrees, abundant sunshine, and 35 to 40 family members and close friends to see me off. Fox News and ABC came to cover the event, which added to the festivities. I realized that one of my goals – getting the word out about hunger – would merit TV news airtime during the deli visits.
This was the most structured and time-sensitive of my long-distance motorcycle trips. I had to stick to a schedule because of the specific dates and times set up for meeting deli owners, doing media interviews, and meeting fellow club members of the Jewish Motorcyclists Alliance (JMA). I belong to the Chicago-area Chaiway Riders chapter – “chai” (pronounced high) is a Hebrew word that means “life.” Other chapters include Hillel’s Angels, Shalom n’ Chrome, Kosher Hogs, Golf Riders New Jersey, and King David Bikers of South Florida.
My strict schedule required long days. I was up by 6 a.m. and riding, visiting delis, and managing details of the trip until 10 p.m. As much as I enjoyed visiting delis and meeting people, I had to leave each deli no later than 2 p.m. to allow time to ride to my next destination. Although the logistics were tricky, after visits to the first few delis I got into a rhythm similar to what I have experienced on other long-distance trips. I felt like a politician on the campaign trail. At each deli, I’d introduce myself to the owner or manager, explain why I was there and what MAZON does, do a photo op, sit for an interview with the local media, and finally eat too much deli food.
Going into this trip, I knew there were going to be logistical and riding challenges. I mentally prepared myself that not every day was going to go as planned. Being flexible and going with the flow helped me tackle the most difficult motorcycle trip I’ve ever done. My planned route took me on backroads most of the time, but when I got within 50 miles of a major city (which is where most of the delis are located), I’d jump on the freeway to avoid stop-and-go traffic.
Fellow JMA members met me at delis along the way, and a few of them joined me for three or four, but I rode solo for most of my 75-day journey. MAZON got the word out to the Jewish community in each city, which led to some funny encounters. In Westport, Connecticut, an older couple and another woman arrived early at Gold’s Delicatessen because they were afraid of not being able to find parking for the event. When they arrived, they asked me, “Where are all the people?” I replied, “You’re it.” We ended up having a lovely quiet lunch together.
Throughout my trip, I heard incredible stories of survival and tenacity. When I met the owner of Hershel’s East Side Deli in Philadelphia, he told me he named the deli after his father’s older brother. During WWII, his father and uncle lived in a small town in Poland. When the Nazis rolled into town, Hershel ran home and got his little brother and escaped into the woods. They survived by living in a camp for six years in Russia. The brothers eventually made their way to New York, where they started working in a deli.
I was the very first customer at Bubbie’s Market & Deli in Providence, Rhode Island. They weren’t planning to open for another week, but they let me be their “test” customer. On the other end of the spectrum was Attman’s Delicatessen in Baltimore, Maryland, which was celebrating its 105th anniversary. Every deli had a story about how it began and how it survived over the years.
At each interview, I was asked, “What is your favorite deli?” My response was always the same. I compared this trip to my national park tour. Just as each national park has its own story and personality that makes it special, so does each deli. And like national parks, delis reflect their geographic location. Rose Foods in Portland, Maine, serves a Fisherman’s Feast that includes bagels, cream cheese, rose lox, nova, and whitefish salad. The General Muir in Atlanta, Georgia, serves deviled eggs and pecan-crusted French toast.
Even though I visited 42 delis, I never got the same sandwich twice. There was always something that made each one unique, such as how the pastrami or corned beef was prepared, or the particular type of bread or toppings that were used. Since I was often busy meeting new people and doing interviews, I rarely finished my entire sandwich. The other half went into my saddlebag and served as dinner in my hotel room.
Traveling for weeks on end by motorcycle opens you up to interesting experiences. I chalked up a few memorable “tales of the road,” such as my encounter with a lone tire on the highway. While riding down the New Jersey Turnpike at 70 mph on a sunny afternoon, I saw a tire rolling along in front of me. I backed off my highway pegs and watched it meander off into the emergency lane, where it disappeared in the grass. Then I saw a huge splash, and figured the tire ended up in a pond.
As I passed by, I glanced over to see if I could spot the tire. When I looked back at the road, that same tire was 50 feet in front of me and about to cross my path of travel. Before I knew it, the tire rolled behind my bike, or at least I thought it did. I pulled over about a mile down the road to check on things and found that the tire had hit my rear pannier, though I never felt the impact.
Although my trip began on a beautiful summer day in Chicago, the next day rainstorms hit Indianapolis and followed me around the country. Riding through heavy rain in Texas, I went through a puddle so deep that I lost control of my bike. When I rolled into Phoenix, I encountered monsoon rains for four days straight. My fellow JMA bikers told me they hadn’t seen that much rain in more than a decade, and they nicknamed me “Rain Man.”
As I also found out, scorpions leave their nests during Arizona’s monsoon rains to avoid the water in the soil. The night before leaving for Los Angeles, I was packing up and reached into my bag, only to narrowly miss a scorpion that had taken up residency there. I don’t scare easily, but I looked under my bed 20 times before going to sleep that night. Once I got to California, the rain was replaced with dryness and heat, and I had to navigate around enormous wildfires that filled the skies with smoke.
After 40 years of long-distance touring, I have learned several tricks that were helpful on this trip. As I approached Red Bluff, California, the day before riding the famous State Route 36 (140 miles of curves known as the Serpent to the Sea that was on my bucket list), the temperature was 108 degrees. As I usually do, I used a cooling vest, water-soaked bandanas, and a 3-liter hydration pack filled with ice water to stay cool. I also carried a half-gallon, wide-mouth container of water that I could reach into while riding. Every 20-30 minutes I soaked my lightweight leather gloves in the water, which cooled the blood in my hands and felt like the opposite of heated grips.
Connecting the dots between delis was a delight. I rode the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, and visited the boyhood home of Elvis Presley in Tupelo. Near Circleville, Utah, I visited the boyhood home of Butch Cassidy. In Lebanon, Kansas, I visited the geographic center of the United States. I rode the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado, and I visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California.
Meeting new people was one of the best parts of this trip. From the deli owners, employees, and customers to random people who just came up to me to ask what I was doing, special connections were made based on our shared love of Jewish food, fascination with travel, or just plain curiosity. It only took two or three questions to find out if someone was from Chicago, or if we knew someone in common, or if their best friend knows my brother. Six degrees of separation played itself out over and over.
When I was in Seattle visiting Dingfelder’s Delicatessen, I did an interview with a young woman from the local Jewish newspaper. When she asked if my friends had strong feelings about which deli I should visit in each town, I mentioned a grammar school friend of mine who lives in the Boston area and has a very strong opinion about the “best deli.” As soon as I mentioned his name, she said, “I know him. I went to college with his daughter, and I stayed at their home.” She went on to describe his house and backyard – 3,000 miles away – that I’ve visited many times.
As with my previous trips, I felt fortunate to travel by motorcycle and experience many parts of America. I had the opportunity to meet a variety of people, from cosmopolitan hipsters to farmers, from children to centenarians – a true cross section of individuals. When talking about this trip with my wife, she coined the phrase “new friends, old food,” which is exactly what I took away from this experience.
After two and a half months on the road, I had a wonderful reunion with Judi in Chicago. She and members of the Chaiway Riders joined me the next day, on August 14, for a ride up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to visit Jake’s Deli – the 42nd and final deli on my list.
By visiting Jewish delis, which are typically located in large cities, and wanting to cover most of my miles on backroads between those cities, I rode through the full spectrum of America – urban areas, rural areas, and everything in between. You could plan this sort of motorcycle trip around any kind of food, whether it be varieties of ethnic food such as Italian, Mexican, Greek, or Chinese, or specific types of food such as BBQ, hamburgers, pie, you name it. Or, as I did with national parks, you could visit baseball parks or other landmarks in every state. Think of something you love, do some research, design a route, and hit the road.
So, after visiting 42 Jewish delis, did my health deteriorate? No. My blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose went up, but I lost two pounds. And since returning home things have returned to normal. But I’ve developed a serious itch, one that can only be cured by another long-distance motorcycle adventure.
The Great American Deli Schlep raised more than $18,000 for MAZON, a nonprofit organization that is committed to ensuring that vulnerable people have access to the resources they need to put food on the table. Even though Steven Goode’s trip is over, MAZON’s mission is not. Please consider making a donation by visiting mazon.org/events/delischlep.