Los Angeles Times, September 4, 2003
By James Verini
Patrons of Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax Avenue might have noticed a change there recently. On the specials board, hanging on a pillar near the bakery, is listed a sandwich called “the Matt Miller.” It consists of sliced roasted turkey, cole slaw and melted muenster cheese on grilled challah bread, with Russian dressing.
The change itself is startling because the last time Canter’s named a sandwich after someone, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and most of the Brooklyn Dodgers had never so much as seen a palm tree. The year was 1953, and the someone in question was the late entertainer Eddie Cantor (his name may or may not have been a factor), and his creation, now known on Canter’s voluminous menu as Eddie Cantor’s Delight, consisted of no less than pastrami, corned beef, ham and Swiss cheese.
Since then any number of hungry machers whose tastes have not graduated to Spago have taken up residency in the orange vinyl booths at this warehouse of nosh, but in 50 years the Canter family has not seen fit to honor any of them with a sandwich.
In fact, in the restaurant’s history (it opened in 1948), only four other people not related to the Canter clan have had sandwiches named for them: Cantor, Danny Thomas, Marilyn Monroe and Billy Gray.
Matthew Miller is not as famous as any of those people. He’s not famous at all — which is to take nothing away from Miller, 31, who has had more success than most in Los Angeles. An unassuming, lanky entertainment writer of olive complexion who glides around the city in loose T-shirts and a two-day beard, Miller is responsible for a number of very respectable television pilots, short-lived sitcoms, cable movies in turnaround and a Woody Allen-style, Manhattan-set, romantic comedy called “The Perfect You.”
His status notwithstanding, several months ago Miller decided he wanted a sandwich named for him at Canter’s.
And if that weren’t brazen enough, Miller’s sandwich didn’t contain brisket, pastrami, corned beef, even any tongue. The only meat in the sandwich — turkey. Turkey!
It’s right there in Deuteronomy: If you must order fowl in a delicatessen, Moses proclaimed, you order chicken.
Where did Miller get off?
“I felt I had something to offer,” said Miller, in the understated but emphatic tones of a man used to pitching executives.
So did Canter’s, it turned out. Earlier this year, Miller approached the management with his idea. They liked it enough to put the “turkey special” on the specials board. It’s grown in popularity enough to now bear his name.
Was this some kind of insane mitzvah or simply the fruits of raw ambition? That is unclear, but what is known is that Jackie Canter, granddaughter of founder Ben Canter and manager of the deli, liked the sandwich, or at least the sound of it. Jackie, who is prettier and svelter than any deli manager should rightfully be, likes turkey.
“I eat a turkey sandwich every day here,” Canter said. But what about historical precedent? There must be hundreds of Matt Millers in Canter’s history who’ve shown the same chutzpah and been rebuffed.
In fact, there are not.
“In 20 years, it’s never happened before,” Canter said. “Nobody has ever come up to me with a sandwich they want put on the menu … except for my husband.”
The strange loopholes of history and Jackie Canter’s fondness for turkey are not enough to buy Miller immortality, however. Not yet. First, Miller’s sandwich must become a hit.
Does he have what it takes? And does L.A. — which is not known for its delis, and where eating a lot of meat, or just eating, is sometimes seen as gauche — care enough about the kind of $10 fame that Miller is after to reward him with it?
To try to finesse a yes to these questions, Miller sponsored a luncheon taste-test of his sandwich in early June. Present were Jackie Canter; her brother, Mark, who runs the deli with Jackie; and Chrisanne Eastwood, a television writer and regular who has been eating at Canters an average of four times a week for the better part of a decade.
The tradition of naming deli sandwiches after renowned eaters began in the Borscht Belt resorts of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, where the entertainers were fed as part of their salaries and came to be associated with their favorite dishes.
It reached a high point at the Carnegie Deli on Manhattan’s West Side, the midday mecca of Broadway’s old vaudeville houses. But fame-inspired noshing and noshing-inspired fame, like the Borscht Belt itself — indeed, like delicatessen culture itself — is a thing of the past.
Miller, in his quest to appear on Canter’s menu, is a man not ahead of but decidedly behind his time. And one gets the sense that Miller, who rides a bicycle and brings a fresh shirt to important meetings, enjoys this image.
Miller said, “I’m not going to say that I’ve always dreamed of having a sandwich named after me, because that would be psychotic.
“I have a sandwich,” he continued. “I think it should be on the menu. That said, it needs a name.” Miller said his creation took time. “I was originally a Reuben man in my childhood. At one point, a stroke of fate, I switched sauerkraut for coleslaw. That was the first step. Then the turkey came in later when I had very high cholesterol.”
The story continues with Miller’s arrival at the University of Michigan, where he began frequenting an Ann Arbor deli of some note called Zingerman’s Delicatessen.
“At Zingerman’s,” Miller said, “they were taking challah to places I’d never even dreamed it could go…. So I took what I’d learned in my childhood, married that with the challah.” When Miller came to Los Angeles he began patronizing “the big three,” as he calls them: Canter’s, Langer’s Delicatessen off MacArthur Park and Nate & Al’s Delicatessen in Beverly Hills. But it took him five to six years to gather the moxie to approach Jackie Canter. “I knew I only had one shot,” he said.
“L.A. is not a sandwich town,” Miller said. “It’s a salad town. It’s a $14 Cobb salad town. L.A. is very aggressive with the use of the avocado. I don’t mind an avocado — but calm down.”
At the luncheon, Eastwood said “the Matt Miller” had “a lightness about it.”
“You have your turkey, but you have a decadence, so to speak. It has a feminine quality to it. It has a sweetness,” she said. Genie Cocchiaro, Canter’s senior waitress, said she thought the sandwich was very good but added, “I’ve worked here 47 years — I like everything.” Asked what she thought of Miller’s ambitions, she said, “It’s insane. Several years ago they came to me for my kugel recipe. They liked it so much they put it on the menu. Do you see my name on there?” Miller did not seem dismayed by this.
Finally, Jackie Canter finished chewing and sat back in her chair. Everyone at the table leaned forward.
“This is very creative,” she said, adding, later: “This makes turkey fun again.”