Have delis, purveyors of foods preserved and pickled to last, finally hit their expiration date?
Looking around New York City, the city through which millions of Jewish immigrants brought with them thousands of delis that catered to lunchtime needs—a bowl of matzo soup, a latke, a taste of pastrami—it seems so. The number of traditional delis left in Manhattan can be counted on a hand or two. And while the grandchildren of those first immigrants continued the diaspora to Phoenix and Miami, the meats and blintzes they brought with them were generally fair.
The voice of deli doom is David Sax, a journalist who has eaten his way across the world’s delis and returned to tell the tale in his just-released book, Save the Deli. Like the prophets of old, Sax is here to chew us out for falling away from the true faith—but also offer a chance at redemption.
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“This is the story we tell amongst ourselves in the business but nobody really talks about,” says Sax, at Ben’s Kosher Deli near New York’s Penn Station, after he orders split pea soup and tuna salad (you can’t fault a guy who spent three years eating deli from coast-to-coast for opting for a goyish starter every once in a while).
Assimilation is the prime culprit, pulling the deli’s core consumers out of the booths. “In Jewish households throughout America, most people are eating Italian food or Japanese food or other types of food,” says Sax. “Yiddish food only comes out at the holidays. It’s not a regular part of the culture anymore.”
Add the high rents that many delis face in cities, low margins on items like pastrami and brisket, limited alcohol sales, a perception among regular eaters that delis should be cheap, dieting trends that have made anything high-fat or carb-loaded non-starters for decades at a time. The rush to the suburbs has allowed fewer delis to cater to larger numbers of people, and the deli owners who built these businesses would rather see their sons and grandsons in law school than in aprons behind the counter. Even Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist, managed to pull delis down further, besmirching their good name by holding illegal fundraisers at his Washington restaurant, Stacks. In 2003, he held a $500-a-plate “sandwich-naming” for Rep. Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, who chose roast beef on challah.
All of this, of course, is not just bad for the Jews but bad for brisket lovers everywhere. But even in the deli wilderness, Sax optimistically pines for an unseen promised land. “There is a hope for this,” says Sax. “There is a new generation of deli lovers who are committed to reviving the culture,” Sax said.
First among the saviors: hipsters.
“When you go into Katz’s and it’s packed on a Saturday night on the Lower East Side, it’s not old Jews and Eastern Europeans who are in there,” says Sax. “It’s drunk and coked-out hipsters. They’re eating that food.” (More specifically, “bearded Jewish hipsters.”)
“When you go into Katz’s and it’s packed on a Saturday night on the Lower East Side, it’s drunk and coked-out hipsters.”
He said that the same energy that's going into the revitalization of modern Jewish music through the record label J-Dub could find its way into food. Off in Portland, Oregon, food blogger Kenny Zukin and chef Ken Gordon started to make their own pastrami a few winters back and a brand-new deli was born.
“I know four guys in their early 20s and 30s who have started pickle companies. Their parents are lawyers and executives,” says Sax. “In a way, this is what’s happening in Jewish culture right now.”
In the end, uncertain times also spell a return to familiar foods. This may be the deli’s best hope. “Comfort food is big right now, and it’s getting bigger,” says Sax. “As the economic times go where they’re going, you might get a lot fewer 20-year-olds who are interested in going to chef school and making elaborate foam, and they’re like, ‘You know what? This is the food I grew up with. This is the food I love.’”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.