…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: