Thirty-four pages into his delicious primer on Jewish-style delicatessens, Save the Deli (McClelland & Stewart), David Sax drops a bombshell: “In 50 years’ time, it is possible that no delis will exist at all in New York City.”
Sax, a Toronto-born writer who lives in Brooklyn, is not kidding.
Consider the grim numbers. In 1931, New York City, the incubator of the deli as we know it today, was home to 1,550 kosher delis. Nearly 80 years on, he claims, no more than a few dozen remain.
“For New York’s delicatessens, rent and property values are what ultimately dictate life and death,” he says. “Those who can pay survive. Those who cannot will close.”
Another factor is also at play here. Profit margins are down due to the rapidly rising cost of deli meats. Once, they were cheaply priced. No longer, now that the price of cattle feed has increased tremendously.
As a result, Sax says, New York’s Jewish delis have found themselves “sandwiched” between skyrocketing rents, astronomical food costs and a customer base unwilling to pay more.
Changing eating habits have had an impact as well. As he puts it, “Today’s Jewish youth are far less likely to eat at a delicatessen than their parents.”
In short, the new generation has ditched smoked meat and pastrami sandwiches for burgers, barbecue and Israeli Middle Eastern fare, which is lower in saturated fat, salt and preservatives.
These trends notwithstanding, Sax has a soft spot for delis. “In delis, people see life. They see hope. They smell comfort.”
A case in point: New Yorkers flocked to delis after the Arab terrorist attacks in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. “The world they’d known was literally tumbling down, and their first reaction was to seek out the comforting certainty of matzah ball soup and cabbage rolls. In delis, New Yorkers taste love.”
Elaborating on this theme, Sax writes that delis are not restaurants per se, but “places to exchange ideas and gossip, cut deals, network and ruminate on the lessons of life.”
Although Save the Deli is sometimes a lament on its decline and future, it is ultimately a paean to the eclectic mix of gastronomic delights that gourmets and gourmands alike can find in a decent delicatessen worth its salt.
Sax, having been practically raised in delis, lists the classic menu items: The aromatic corned beef. The peppery pastrami. The braised brisket. The garlicky salami. The silken tongue. The steaming bowls of chicken soup. The knishes, kishke, kasha, varnishkes, kreplach and kugel. The rye bread. The garlic-soaked pickles. The mustard, whether yellow or brown, since butter and mayonnaise are virtually forbidden in old-fashioned delicatessens.
According to Sax, the first delis in New York City were likely German-owned, since Germans gravitated toward specialties such as sausages, sauerkraut, meatloaf, frankfurters and liverwurst. Jews, particularly German Jews, were not far behind.
“The first big name in American Jewish deli was that of Isaac Gellis, a Berlin-born sausage maker who came to New York in 1871… and quickly established himself in the Lower East Side,” he writes. Gellis was soon America’s biggest purveyor of kosher hot dogs, sausages, salamis and cold cuts. But Sussman Volk, a Lithuanian Jewish butcher who arrived in the United States in 1887, may have been the first person in New York City to sell a pastrami sandwich.
Delis at the turn of the 19th century followed a simple formula, Sax says. They were largely found in the Lower East Side, where the Jewish population was concentrated. They were almost uniformly kosher, and they served a limited selection of food: corned beef, pastrami and pickled tongue, followed closely by roast brisket, beef salami and beef baloney.
Delicacies such as lox, bagels and cream cheese were sold in dairy shops dispensing smoked fish.
Having travelled across the United States and Canada to research this illuminating and entertaining book, Sax concludes that many of the finest delis he had the pleasure of visiting have been passed on from one generation to the next. “When you have children, parents and grandparents all putting in their two cents, the compromises that emerge leave stronger delis in their wake,” he observes.
One such deli is Langer’s in downtown Los Angeles. You may be surprised that Los Angeles has become “America’s premier deli city.” Sax believe there are more delis of higher quality there than in New York City. Citing delis like Factor’s and Nate n’ Al, he says, “There has been no grand decline in the Los Angeles deli scene.”
As for New York, Sax cites a litany of reputable delis, including Katz’s – the last original and oldest delicatessen on the Lower East Side – where most of the countermen hail from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Sax also has words of praise for Gottlieb’s in Brooklyn, which serves a strictly Orthodox Jewish clientele and where the lingua franca is Yiddish.
As well, Sax admires Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich., a small deli that evolved into an exquisite food emporium on a par with Zabar’s in Manhattan.
Moving southward, he lists a plethora of delis in southern Florida, whose Jewish population has exploded in the past 25 years.
He is crushed by the news that Rascal House, one of the great temples of deli fare, has been torn down and replaced by a condominium. Describing it as “the most famous deli south of New York,” Sax notes that no visit to Florida was ever complete without a visit to Rascal House. “During peak tourist season, crowds would line up from breakfast until four in the morning.”
I confess I was a fan, too.
Sax states that traditional delis like Rascal House have been supplanted by “corporate delis” such as Toojay’s Original Gourmet Deli, which began as a single operation in Palm Beach and has expanded into a chain of 25 restaurants with more than 1,700 employees.
For Sax, Montreal remains the “nirvana” of deli purists.
“Montreal delis have remained stubbornly original in their decor, food preparation and menus,” he writes, mentioning Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen and its heavenly smoked meat sandwich.
As for Toronto, Sax is worried about the flurry of deli closings. “Today, roughly half a dozen Jewish delicatessens exist in Toronto, down from several dozen a few decades ago.”
But Sax has a high opinion of Centre Street Deli, where “the food is always on the mark.” I can attest to that, having happily feasted on its glorious hand-cut smoked meat and pastrami sandwiches.
Sax is disappointed that Israelis have not taken to the deli. “The Israeli culinary landscape is dominated by the food of the Arabs. Hummus is everywhere, as is falafel, but searching for a knish in Israel is like trying to work out a peace deal in the region… heartbreaking, exhausting, and destined for failure.”
No wonder aliyah from North America remains abysmally low.