Why I Want to Save the Deli


Photos by David Sax

To view a slide show featuring images of delis across the country--and the food served in them--click here.

"What the hell gave you the meshuggeh idea to write a book about deli?"

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.

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 Web site 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.

The lovers of deli didn't need an obituary; they needed a call to arms. They wanted to Save the Deli, and ultimately, I did too.

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'll 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 57 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.

VIEW SLIDE SHOW>> sax_oct01_challah.jpg

Photo by David Sax

"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. 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 D.C., 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 his or her business but for the survival of the entire class of restaurants. Demographics were a factor: customers were increasingly elderly, with fewer youth replacing them. Assimilation was too: each successive generation of Jews born in North America was less inclined to make deli a regular part of their diet.

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.

If we're going to save the deli, we'd better have a good reason. What's yours?