But even Rodus admits that other factors, such as health, are a key reason people aren’t frequenting delis the way they used to. “Traditional delicatessens aren’t that healthy,” he admits. “If they were, they wouldn’t be that good.”
Schwartz, also the author of New York City Food: An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes, says delis are in danger because people just don’t eat that way anymore. “Even though a lot of people have an emotional attachment to deli food, it’s high in fat and salt,” he says. “Even I don’t allow myself many corned beef or pastrami sandwiches these days.”
Sax also points to the changing demographics of the neighborhoods in which the delis are located as a factor in their disappearance.
“Delis flourished beginning in the 1890s because the Jewish immigrants wanted the authentic food of their homeland,” he says. That trend continued through the end of World War II, when the last wave of Jewish immigration hit the United States.
But from the 1950s onward, the Jewish deli became more of an American institution, losing its immigrant roots with each generation. Today, neighborhoods that were once all Jewish have become home to other ethnic groups that don’t share the cultural history of traditional deli food.
Yet despite the economic and cultural odds, a new generation of deli devotees — such as Dell, the 24-year-old manager and owner of Katz’s — are taking over, and, in some cases, even reinventing the institution.
“As long as they are paying homage to the tradition of it, I applaud anyone who is trying to do deli and do it well,” Dell says. “It takes tremendous time and effort, and you need to know what you are doing every step of the way.” Dell should know: Katz’s gets 10,000 pounds of brisket in every week, which they make into their world-class corned beef.