Two years before David Sax was born, his paternal grandfather died while eating a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen in Montreal. But the food that caused his grandfather’s literal downfall was also his legacy: it “pickled my soul with a craving for salt, garlic, and secret spices,” Sax writes. “My birthright was an unconditional love of deli.”
This unconditional, even lethal love is in part what inspired Sax to write Save the Deli, a book that has its origins in a Jewish sociology course Sax took in college. It grew more directly from Sax’s website of the same name, which he dedicated to profiling the country’s remaining authentic delis and interviewing deli lovers throughout the world. As Sax writes in the book, New York has suffered some of the most heavy deli losses: in the 1930s, the city was home to some 1,500 kosher delis. Today, there are less than two dozen spread across the five boroughs.
Fork in the Road spoke with Sax, whose book comes out next Monday, October 19, about the future of the deli, the diversity of the Katz’s clientele, and why the way forward does not lie in the Manischevitini.
Some people believe that delis are dying in part because the food doesn’t appeal to the under-40 set.
People are saying that the younger generation doesn’t eat pastrami. But I was at Fette Sau the other night and they have a non-traditional but absolutely fantastic pastrami. People were lining up out the door on a Saturday night for 40 minutes to get a plate. It’s the same at Katz’s: the line is out the door, and it’s not just old Jews from the East Village. It’s kids going to Max Fish or Pianos for a gig, or coming in after, when they’re blown out of their minds on coke.
Right. People still love hot, fatty meat. If anything, they seem to love it more than ever.
If I would have told you 10 years ago that there would be 40 barbecue places in New York, you would have said I was insane. But look at even something like Dave Chang’s place — everything is a fatty cut of pork. It’s almost as if all the factors are in place for the deli to have this great resurgence. The no-fat craze peaked in the ’80s, the no-carb craze peaked in the ’90s. Now there’s an emphasis on less salt, but people still enjoy this food, especially in times like these … And I think our generation of eaters is much more adventurous than previous generations. The skinless boneless crowd is getting nudged aside by the chicken giblet crowd.
Are there any newer delis that are carrying the torch passed down by the older generation?
There’s one in Portland called Kenny & Zuke’s, Caplansky’s in Toronto, Jimmy & Drew’s in Boulder, and Saul’s in Berkeley. They all show tremendous promise, but these are the early places, the green shoots. We’re sort of at a point with Jewish culture and identity where the generation of my parents, the baby boomers, was the most heavily assimilated, and my generation is the one that’s in the past few years [been] reinventing Jewish culture with things like Heeb and JDate. It’s almost a rediscovery of culture. The delis that open up that will be really promising are going to be opened up by younger people.
Like Jeremy Lebewohl, who re-opened his family’s Second Avenue Deli in 2007.
Jeremy could have gone into law practice with his father but chose to go into the business. He loved the time he spent with his uncle [Abe Lebewohl] in the business and that love of his makes it relevant for him. He doesn’t see it as just an investment. You can’t do [a deli] by being disingenuous. Don’t complicate it. Keep it really simple.
In the book, you interviewed Joshua Neuman, the editor of Heeb, at Mo Pitkin’s, the self-described “Judeo-Latin brasserie.” Neuman said that Pitkin’s — which closed in 2007 — “captures what’s happening” and dismissed the relevance of Katz’s sandwiches in favor of the “more real” experience of consuming something like Pitkin’s Manischevetini. He seemed to think the deli needed to die and then be re-born in watered-down fusion food, like what we more recently saw at Delicatessen. You, obviously, disagree.
Delicatessen quickly dropped all of the quasi-deli things — Reuben fritters or whatever the fuck they were — on their menu. That’s sort of an early-’90s fusion thing. It’s an experience, it’s great, and it gets headlines and gets people talking for month or two and then kind of fades. I just feel it’s more disingenuous. The stuff people line up for is traditional stuff done well. The way to move the culture forward is not through ironic, quirky twists. The pastrami sandwich has endured for a long time.
What do you think of places like the Carnegie, which is largely known as a tourist trap?
The Carnegie is a great place. The first deli experience I had in New York was at the Carnegie. It’s not your neighborhood small mom and pop deli. It’s show business, and part of the deli is theater. It keeps deli in the minds of people — every tourist from Omaha or Osaka who goes in there spreads the gospel of deli around the world. The Carnegie and the Stage are very similar things — they serve that purpose. They’re really great, wonderful, vibrant places.
In the book, you devote some space to Zingerman’s, the 27-year-old Ann Arbor, Mich., deli that sells very high-end gourmet food alongside its more traditional Jewish foods. It pulls in $30 million a year, which would seem to prove that delis can still turn a profit.
The Zingerman’s ethos is all about sustainability, which is very much in tune with the zeitgeist of the food movement in the U.S. The success that they’ve had is a testament to that. People make pilgrimages to a town in the middle of fucking Michigan to get a corned beef sandwich. It’s not because [Zingerman’s] is selling some kind of retro New York chic, it’s not because it’s where their grandparents went, but because of the quality of the food. The rye bread is baked there, the blintzes are made with vanilla beans. The idea is that you don’t need to reinvent food, you don’t need to make it into a foam or some other gimmick. You just have to make the quality as high as possible. That makes the food relevant.
There will be a launch party/reading/”full-on deli extravaganza” for Save the Deli on October 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen, 209 West 38th Street.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 13, 2009