New York delis as we know them are on the verge of extinction. But a handful of old stalwarts, along with a few young up-and-comers, are working to keep the tradition alive.“I had always dreamed of being a doctor,” says Jake Dell, the third-generation owner of Katz’s, the famous Lower East Side Manhattan delicatessen that is celebrating its 123rd anniversary this year. “But after I applied to top-tier medical schools, the doubts started creeping in, and I began to wonder what was going to happen to the deli if I didn’t take it over. It was a little scary to me.” Dell just couldn’t imagine his life without his family deli being a part of it. Many New Yorkers, seeing the traditional delicatessens they grew up with disappear at an alarming rate, can relate. According to New York food historian Arthur Schwartz, the New York deli is almost dead. “Who eats delicatessen on a regular basis anymore?” he asks. “I’ll tell you who: no one.”
David Sax, author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen, says that in 1930, there were more than 3,000 Jewish delicatessens across New York’s five boroughs. Today there are only two dozen — roughly one percent — left.
But to understand the plight of the deli, a place where pastrami and corned beef are piled high on freshly baked rye bread and kosher dill pickles play a starring role, Schwartz says you have to appreciate what makes a deli a deli. And that requires a trip back to the early 19th century.
“Delicatessen is actually a German word,” Schwartz explains. The earliest large immigrant group to come into New York was the Germans in the 1840s and ’50s. Middle-class and skilled workers, they brought with them an array of sausages and preserved meats made from pork and beef. They set up shop, and the first New York delis were established.
Things changed at the turn of the century, when an immigration influx brought Eastern European Jews from Poland and Russia seeking freedom from religious persecution. Because the laws of keeping kosher don’t allow pork to be eaten and require a separation of meat and dairy, the delicatessen evolved to be a beef-only meat provider, and the cultural culinary roots of today’s deli were born. A second shop called an appetizing store, which specialized in fish and dairy products, entered the scene as well.
“When I was a kid, you went to Russ & Daughters on Houston just down the street from Katz’s for your sour cream, cream cheese, smoked salmon, sable and whitefish,” Schwartz remembers. “Then you went to the deli for corned beef, pastrami, salami, tongue, rolled beef, roast turkey and roast beef of brisket.” Meat was purchased by the pound or served up in a sandwich, with pickles, coleslaw and potato salad on the side. “Russ & Daughters is still there today, owned by the fourth generation,” Schwartz adds. “They are the last of the great old appetizing stores.”