This question came over my cell phone two and a half years ago, in the parking lot of Canter’s Deli, in Los Angeles. On the other end of the line was Mel Brooks, legendary comedian, filmmaker, and Jewish icon, whose trademark rasp was calling to task my motivation for visiting hundreds of Jewish delicatessens around the world, eating their food, and chronicling their stories.
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I told Mel Brooks that I had dangerously low cholesterol, and this was the only way I could survive.
Since I began research on the subject, and launched the website savethedeli.com in January 2007, I’m asked variations of this question regularly. Now that my book, Save the Deli, is about to be published on October 19th, I’m forced to answer it daily. What on earth possessed me to take up the quest to save Jewish delicatessens from their journey to the dustbin of history? Why, of all the things I could do with my career as a journalist, did I chose to pursue this, forever affiliating my name with the holy trinity of pickled tongue, corned beef, and pastrami.
The easy answer is that I simply love delis, that these restaurants occupy a central part of my edible, Proustian memory, and that I do it for the security of knowing there will be a matzo ball soup served when my first child is born.
The roots of my quest to Save the Deli began back in 1996, on a warm December day in New York City. I was all of 16, visiting the city for the second time with my friends from summer camp, Steely and Scott. After taking the train in from Philadelphia with Scott’s mother, we’d eaten breakfast at the Carnegie Delicatessen. After an hour of meandering around the Village, shopping for music t-shirts and drug paraphernalia, Scott had a plan for a monumental lunch.
Every time he’d come into the city with his parents, they’d gone to
Wolf’s Delicatessen, up at 57 West 57th st. Wolf’s was once one of the
many landmark delicatessens of Midtown, catering to the entertainment
industry and office workers, and at one time expanding to several
different locations around the city. As we walked the fifty seven blocks
to Wolf’s, Scott detailed the treasures awaiting us; airy matzo balls,
fried potato varenikas with sour cream, golden meat knishes, gorgeous
pastrami and corned beef sandwiches piled sky high on fresh rye. By the
time we arrived, nearly two hours later, starvation was the only force
willing our exhausted legs to move further.
“Wait. What? What the hell?” Scott blurted with hopeless confusion. He
was staring at 57 West 57th, at a window with the word Wolf’s
Delicatessen stenciled on. But beyond the glass there was nothing but
brown paper, covering the view inside the recently shuttered
restaurant. Astonished, Scott grabbed the nearest person and asked
where Wolf’s had gone. “It’s closed honey,” an elderly woman blurted
back, “done, boarded up, out of business.”
A wave of defeat crashed over us and held us under. I imagine the
feeling climbers on Everest endure when they are forced to turn back
just feet from the summit, their struggle in vain. In silence we
dragged our weary souls back to Penn Station, returning to Philadelphia
hungry, frustrated, and confused.
I never forgot that feeling, and I, like Jewish deli fans everywhere,
have been unfortunate enough to experience it with shocking regularity.
In 2000, when Montreal’s Brown Derby closed, in 2006, when the original
2nd Ave Deli suddenly shut, in 2008, when Miami’s Rascal House was
demolished by real estate speculators, and just this past spring, when
Coleman’s Deli in my hometown of Toronto, went belly up.
I didn’t begin to realize why this was happening, or the scale, until
the fall of 2001, when a friend and I wrote a term paper on the Jewish
delicatessen business for a Jewish sociology class at McGill University
in Montreal. What drove us to write it was a shared love of deli
(Montreal is a haven of old-school, hand-cut temples of meat). Without
any studies or documents to cite, we began visiting and calling delis,
talking with their owners about the business.
What we found was startling. Delis everywhere were in decline. In DC, in
Boston, in San Francisco, and in Chicago. In New York, once home to
over 2000 Jewish delis, there were just under two dozen left. Every
owner, with few exceptions, feared not just for their business, but the
survival of the entire class of restaurants. Demographics were a
factor: customers were increasingly elderly, with fewer youth replacing
them. Assimilation was as well: each successive generation of Jews born
in North America was less inclined to make deli a regular part of their
When I set out to write the book in 2006, it was originally titled “The
Death of the Deli”, and it was very much a swan song. But as I traveled
around the world, eating deli as far afield as Paris, Antwerp, and even
South Florida strip malls, I felt the winds shift. Delis were on the
edge, but the lovers of deli were as strong as ever. People were
fighting back, willing to resurrect a cherished food because it hit the
belly in the right way. They didn’t need an obituary; they needed a
call to arms. They wanted to Save the Deli, and ultimately, I did too.
But I’ve also encountered many people who feel it shouldn’t be saved.
They say it’s a relic of an era best forgotten, a collection of
unhealthy food that’s killed more Jews than the Cossacks, a fetishism of
Jewish American culture. Perhaps they’re right, that the deli is an
anachronism, a slice of Jewish history that we need to leave behind in
order to move forward. Maybe they have a point. Maybe the vegetarians
and cardiologists and carb freaks are right. Maybe the deli shouldn’t
If we’re going to save the deli, we’d better have a good reason. What’s
yours?David Sax is the author of Save the
Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish
Delicatessen. He also runs the blog savethedeli.com and works as a
freelance journalist in New York.