February 23rd, 2013

The deli…

is going the way of the dodo:

Increasing apathy, particularly from younger patrons, has driven traditional Jewish delicatessens from their mid-century pinnacle. The decline seems to be accelerating partly because of health concerns over the schmaltz-spread fare and partly because bagels are now available in every supermarket.

I have lamented the disappearance of the rye bread of my youth even from its former bastion, Manhattan. And so it doesn’t surprise me in the least to read that the Jewish deli is an increasingly endangered species. Delis were mainly supported by an immigrant population that has since died out, and their children and grandchildren either don’t appreciate the food of their ancestors or shy away from it because it violates those food health rules we’ve come to believe in.

But one thing you should not believe: that the bagels available “in every supermarket” bear any relationship whatsoever to authentic bagels, which are a chewy, toothsome, and altogether divergent experience from the soft and cakey messes that pass for bagels today. And alas, that latter description includes those sold in most bagel stores.


[NOTE: After I wrote the above post, I realized that not only have I written about rye bread before, but I’ve written about the delis’ impending demise before—and at great length, with an illustration. So I thought it might be appropriate to re-run that earlier essay, because anything with a photo of a pastrami sandwich in it is worth looking at:

I’ve often observed that there’s no deli like a New York deli.

Now, you may think you’ve found some exceptions to that rule. And perhaps you have; I haven’t sampled all the delis in the world. But outside of New York (most particularly, the New York of my youth) I haven’t yet located any that can compare.

Tasteless corn beef. Slimy pickles without that special zip I remember so fondly from long ago. And rye bread? Please, let’s not go there. Soft crust instead of the chewy kind, and a stale center instead of a succulent and springy one studded with the bite of caraway.

But now I learn to my greater dismay, via my arch-enemy the NY Times, that even in the New York metropolitan area delis are going the way of the dodo. The economy has taken its toll, but that’s not the half of it:

In the old days, everybody cured their own corned beef and pastrami, made their own pickles, and used bread from a neighboring bakery. Now, few even make their own matzo balls…But delis are up against more than a bad economy. “Jews are largely assimilated and don’t want to eat only Jewish food,” Mr. Sax said.

When they do, they have to face concerns that might have been overlooked a few years ago. Foods like pastrami and kishke (beef intestine casings stuffed with brisket fat or chicken fat, matzo meal, onions and carrots) are delicious, but they’re not health food.

The Times also notes the heartening news that there’s a blog devoted to saving the deli. But on my maiden voyage there, I encountered some very sorrowful tidings about rye bread.

I’d recently been on a quest in several cities for the real thing, to no avail. But until now I had continued to hold onto the notion that it could still be found somewhere in New York, the mother ship. But this recent post disabused me of that notion [emphasis mine]:

There’s a crisis in the Jewish deli, and it starts at the bottom: the rye bread. Simply put, most of the rye bread at delicatessens around America is not worth the effort it takes to chew. Of all the ryes I tasted in my global research into Jewish delicatessens, none were more disappointing than the supposedly legendary New York rye. The bread at such landmark delis as Katz’s or the 2nd Ave Deli is a disgrace, and the delis’ owners readily admit to it. The crusts are limp, the centers dry, and there is hardly any yeasty aroma to account for. It falls apart under any real stress, leaving you with a handful of greasy meat and mustard. If the finest musicians in the world shine on the stage at Carnegie Hall, doesn’t the finest pastrami in New York deserve a canvas to make it sing?

Real Jewish rye, made with a large percentage of coarse rye flour, hasn’t existed for years in New York. Most so-called “rye” is made from white flour, tossed with a few caraway seeds, and diluted with just enough rye flour to legally call it rye bread. The change came about during the postwar era, when white flour became cheaper, and easier to preserve, than rye flour. Industrial bakeries, such as Levy’s, hooked many on the taste of a packaged, pasteurized rye bread with their famous slogan “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” That the bread paled in comparison to traditionally-baked loaves wasn’t the point. It was hip, it was cheap, it could last longer. Jewish eaters followed suit. As independent Jewish bakeries succumbed to their larger, industrial competition, quality rye bread disappeared from delicatessens.

But just when I had dissolved into a puddle of tears, devastated at the idea of relinquishing my dream (think Proust and the madeleine forever lost), I discovered that real rye is not dead, it’s alive and well and living in other places. The article goes on to mention that there are small enclaves of old-fashioned rye bread in Los Angeles, DelRay Florida, Skokie Illinois, and an especially large offering of bakeries in Detroit. I will have to make a visit to one of these places soon, because of descriptions like this:

I first experienced double-baked rye at the Bread Basket, a small chain of Detroit delicatessens, with Sy Ginsberg, the corned beef king of Michigan and much of the Midwest. As the waitress set down a sandwich of Ginsberg’s trademark corned beef in front of us, I was equally impressed with the bread. It had a darker flecked color to it (the rye flour), with a golden crust that reminded me of good sourdough. The crumb was warm to the touch, and the heat of the oven had released a tangy perfume of yeast. It felt like a little pillow in my hand, cradling the tender corned beef slicked with mustard. The crust had crackle and chew, the crumb was soft and doughy. It tasted like rye bread ought to.

Please read the whole thing. And then make your pilgrimage to one of these sacred spots. Tell them neo sent you.

[NOTE: In the accompanying photo—from this kosher deli in Florida—the pastrami looks mighty tasty indeed. But the rye bread not so, I’m afraid:


33 Responses to “The deli…”

  1. Leah Says:

    Los Angeles is now the home of the most and best Jewish Delis, go to Langers for their real ryebread and the best pastrami ever.
    Brents up in Northridge.
    Recently Juniors closed on Westwood Blvd and immediately was replaced with Lenny’s.
    There are others that aren’t that good but are doing a great business.

    New York may be losing it’s delis, but here in LA, everyone eats in them.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Leah: the article, which is from the LA Times, mentions LA’s delis quite prominently.

    I used to like Art’s. Their pastrami sandwich was the best I ever ate.

  3. Paul in Boston Says:

    Try Barry’s in Waban just off Beacon Street, it’s pretty good. The sandwiches are delicious.

  4. rickl Says:

    I like bagels and rye bread, but sadly, I’ve never eaten at a New York deli.

    What is pastrami, anyway? The word looks Italian. Sometimes I buy it at my supermarket to make sandwiches I bring to work for lunch.

    Anyway, I’m fortunate to live in the Philly suburbs, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a good pizza/cheesesteak place.

  5. vanderleun Says:

    Luckily for me, everything on the Jerusalem Grill’s menu is on my diet.

  6. rickl Says:

    But don’t despair. Real rye bread will not die out. As long as there’s a demand for it, local niche bakers will rise (get it?) to meet the demand.

    Look at beer. For decades, most American mass-produced beers were bland and ordinary. But in the last 20 years or so, craft brewers have sprung up all over the country, making a bewildering variety of recipes to suit any taste.

  7. Mac Says:

    This southern boy has always loved rye bread, though from your description, Neo, I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted the real thing. I’m sure I would love it. I do know that most of what passes for rye bread around here is pretty wimpy stuff, about like what’s in your picture there. But some of the grocery stores that bake their own bread occasionally produce something pretty decent.

    Sometimes it seems like everything real in America disappears and then returns as corporate hype around a pale imitation (e.g Cracker Barrel restaurants). Though as rickl says the beer scene is great.

  8. renminbi Says:

    The irony is that high fat deli meat is likely more healthful than what people eat as a substitute for it.

  9. G Joubert Says:

    Make your own home-made bagels. There are lots of recipes available on the internet. Boiling before baking is the key.

  10. Kurt Says:

    Hmmm… I just tried posting a comment, but it seems to have disappeared. 🙁

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    rickl: Here’s a description of pastrami.

    However, the only good pastrami I’ve ever had has been in New York and Los Angeles. What they call pastrami in other places in not worthy of the name. For example, I once chased after some in Montreal that was reputed to be the real thing (according to guidebooks, anyway), and it wasn’t good at all. And Montreal is a large city with a large Jewish populations, so you’d think they’d have good pastrami.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    rickl: oh, and real rye bread already has pretty much died out. I’ve had rye bread in really good bakeries, too, and although it can be a tasty item, it is very different from the real rye bread that was sold in delis in the New York of my youth.

  13. Charles Says:

    I might believe something Obama says before I believe that is rye bread in that photo. (The pastrami is making my mouth water though.)

    My grandmother (not Jewish) never had any other bread in her house except, whole wheat, rye, or pumpernickel.

    Time to go make a sandwich. hmm . . . egg salad on pumpernickel sounds real good about now.

  14. Kurt Says:

    I’m still trying to figure out where that comment went. Anyway, with regards to pastrami, I’ve never had it and know next to nothing about it. As it happens, though, I saw a rerun of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” last night, and they featured this place in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. A Google search also turned up a feature on this place in Santa Barbara.

  15. holmes Says:

    I don’t know how NY does it. Best bagels on the planet and can’t seem to be duplicated anywhere else. My wife and I stood in line for an hour at a place in Manhattan when we visited. Worth it.

  16. Gary Rosen Says:

    San Francisco never had a good deli but it has a good Jewish bakery, House of Bagels. I used to live a few blocks from it and they had good rye and challah, just like I grew up with. I haven’t been there in a while though. There are other “House of Bagels” down here in Silicon Valley and while they are not perfectly authentic they are a lot more “bagel-y” than what you get at most other places.

  17. Gary Rosen Says:

    Incidentally my great-grandfather owned a bakery and my grandfather met my grandmother while driving a truck for him. I also have a picture of my grandfather at about the age of 12 working in a bakery in Russia with some other kids!

  18. Susanamantha Says:

    There used to be a deli in Dayton, Ohio, called The Chicago Deli. As soon as a customer sat down, a waitress would bring a plate full of sliced, fresh, homemade pickles. I loved to sit there and eat them while I awaited my Reuben. It might not have been “real” New York rye bread, but it was darned good.
    The place closed about 25 years ago. So did Harold’s in Knoxville. Sad. Very sad.

  19. RodW Says:

    There are real bagels in Montreal.

  20. Grewilli Says:

    The reason NYC bagels can’t be duplicated is the water. Water in different locations tastes different due to trace minerals. NYC just happens to have a really great water supply. That said the bagels in Manhattan aren’t bagels anymore, they are fluffy monstrosities that would be illegal to serve at Gitmo under the Geneva convention. Some of the outer borough and suburban shops still make great bialys and bagels but the stores of yore in Manhattan like the one I went to on 14th street, headed by a wizened man who stood about five feet tall on a good day are sadly over.

  21. NeoConScum Says:

    ART’S Deli on Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, Calif. This goy boy had never even imagine eating—YIKES—chopped liver on rye before my first 41-yr ago Art’s Experience. Thought those first bagels I ever saw were lousy looking-tasting donuts…Hey, soooooooo much to learn.(-:

  22. rickl Says:

    If worse comes to worst, you may have to do it yourself. I’ve never baked bread, but there are lots of recipes online. Here’s one I chose at random:

    New York Deli Rye Bread

    Like I said, I can’t vouch for it. But the picture looks yummy.

  23. James Says:

    Food porn!

  24. Sorta Blogless Sunday Pinup » Pirate's Cove Says:

    […] neo-neocon is upset about delis disappearing […]

  25. RickZ Says:

    Carnegie Deli in Manhattan has the best pastrami hands down (sorry all you Katz’s lovers). Carnegie’s jumbo cabbage roll is not too shabby, either. And their mountain of fresh fried onion rings are a cardio’s (delicious) nightmare.

    Grewilli, I agree with you about NYC bagels. I’m in Queens, and there’s a bagel store 2 blocks away. Really good and chewy salt and everything bagels (my go to bagel test). When I lived in Brooklyn, they also had the real deal bagels. But Manhattan bagels? Crap, pure crap. Oversized rolls, they’re so light and airy. If your jaw muscles don’t get tired of chewing down a bagel, it’s not a good bagel.

    And speaking of bagels, how many have had the ultimate bagel? A salt bagel with a shmear of cream cheese, lox and raw onion. Great way to start the day and keeps the co-workers away.

  26. Don Carlos Says:

    I don’t understand what “double-baked” rye bread is and cannot find a recipe.

  27. Jim Kearney Says:

    I guess the Buddah was right saying “Nothing’s permanent”. I remember well, my Irish Catholic mother traipsing me down the block on Dyckman St to the Jewish Deli. There was one in Riverdale I liked too. The Second Ave Deli closed. I guess it’s time for some entrepreneurial go getter to act on these responses and make a nice Deli. In the mean time, let’s learn to bake our own. Now, I’m in Dallas where my fiancé lives. I took her up to the city over Christmas and she asked me “What’s a “Nish” ” instead of Knish. I miss a good Knish.

  28. RickZ Says:

    Now Katz’s has good homemade knishes, not like those disgusting ‘fried’ and reheated street ones.

  29. Steven Says:

    Next time you’re on the upper east side of Manhattan, try the rye bread either at Eli’s (Eli Zabar’s store at 80th and 3rd) or Orwasher’s (78th just east of 2nd ave). They’re both pretty authentic, to my taste anyway. They’re the only two places I will eat rye bread from.

  30. MBE Says:

    American food is appallingly bland, and a huge part of the problem is the obsession with fat. Fat provides taste. When the fat level is lowered, the food loses taste, AND, because sugar levels are usually increased to offset the flavour loss, the food is much less healthy.

    Fat is only bad for you if you have a high carbohydrate diet. Carbohydrates, and sugars in particular, are never good for you.

    I find it fascinating that my sister-in-laws from the USA (I have three there) always stock up on corned beef and Nutella when they visit us, in Australia. Apparently our versions are much nicer than the US versions, due to the higher fat content. Since the US version also has an offsetting higher carbohydrate level, our versions are also healthier.

    I don’t eat Nutella myself, but my kids love it. Ironically, we don’t buy the Australian Nutella, but rather get Italian Nutella, which apparently is much, much nicer than our version – and it also comes in awesome looking 5kg (11 lbs) jars.

    Having read Gary Taubes’ book “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It” in November, I have completely changed views on what food is good and bad from a health perspective. I’ve also lost almost 20kgs (44 lbs) since then.

    Go for the real food.

  31. KBK Says:

    I don’t know, the bread looks like pretty good kimmel to me. A little over-kneaded before forming, maybe, with a short proof. The crust looks nice. Large gas bubbles in the loaf can make it hard to manage a sandwich, even though they look authentic, so maybe the uniformity is on purpose.

    So long as it’s a real sourdough rye, I’d be happy.

    Looking at the menu, I’m amazed at the size of the portions. My wife and I always split a sandwich at a place like that. Appears to be well worth a visit!

  32. KBK Says:

    And a Kosher sushi menu!

  33. nolanimrod Says:

    There goes the last reason to visit NYC.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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