Save the Deli

The NYT tackles Roots Delis

Back in NY, albeit just for a week. A big thanks to everyone in Albany and Boston who came out to support me, who listened on the radio, and who even bought a book. A special shout out to the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, who sent this awesome little token up to my room:

Yes, that’s a white chocolate cover of Save the Deli, filled with cookies, and a corned beef sandwich made out of shaved red velvet cake and cookies. So cool.

image courtesy of

Lots of deli news today. First, and most relevant, is a serious feature in the New York Times dining section by Julia Moskin, on what I called the Roots Delis, in Gourmet last year; the back to the farm, DIY, keeping it real deli movement that’s slowly sweeping across the nation.

Says the Times, in Can the Jewish Deli be Reformed:

New delis, with small menus, passionate owners and excellent pickles and pastrami, are rising up and rewriting the menu of the traditional Jewish deli, saying that it must change, or die. For some of them, the main drawback is the food itself, not its ideological underpinnings.

So, places like the three-month-old Mile End in Brooklyn; Caplansky’s in Toronto; Kenny & Zuke’s in Portland, Ore.; and Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, N.C., have responded to the low standard of most deli food — huge sandwiches of indifferent meat, watery chicken soup and menus thick with shtick — by moving toward delicious handmade food with good ingredients served with respect for past and present.

The piece was inspired by Saul’s debate on sustainability. Arguably that’s the deli that’s gone the furthest to radically change themselves, with all the controversy it’s ensued:

Many deli die-hards were present, the kind of people who have found Saul’s matzo brei with green garlic and mission figs to be a poor substitute for salami and eggs.

The story is sure to stir up more heated conversation, and I welcome it. While I don’t have the harsh words for more “traditional” delis that many of the owners quoted in the piece do (note to those deli owners, please look up the Jewish meaning of Lashan Hara and don’t talk shit about your brethren), I do praise a movement emerging of new delis that area challenging the status quo, in a way that’s respectful to the flavors of the past. These are undoubtedly the most exciting delis opening in recent years, and their success is a testament to that.

But let’s put this in the greater context of the deli world. There’s nothing wrong with Katz’s, or any other neighborhood deli that doesn’t source their meat from cattle lovingly massaged by artesenal hippy farmers. The Langer’s pastrami sandwich, with meat that is made in a commercial facility, and rye bread brought in from outside, is still an unmatched masterpiece. The 2nd Ave Deli is a temple. A holy fucking temple.

Can these places learn a thing or two from the new upstart roots delis? Undoubtedly. If their success encourages old school places to make more food from scratch, or experiment with new dishes, that will move the culture and cuisine of the delicatessen forward. But let’s not forget the past, and begrudge a style of Jewish deli that many people love and hold dear. For every young convert that’s rediscovered deli at these young places, there’s the lifelong customer at the old school kosher deli. He’s been eating there for 70 years, and it’s a part of his life. We should love all Jewish delis and show them the respect they deserve. Diversity is strength.

*Also, tonight I’ll be speaking at an event in NYC called Culinary Microhistories, at Housing Works Bookstore.
Join Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi, David Sax, author of Save the Deli, Anne Mendelson, author of Milk, and Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar, for a discussion of food-writer obsessions, moderated by Publishers Weekly’s Mark Rotella.
7pm on Crosby, just south of Houston. Free.

9 Responses to “The NYT tackles Roots Delis”

  1. Bob Lippman Says:

    I love your site and the whole deli thing. I am 66 years yound and still,even though i live upstate crave the monster nosh.. A pastrami on rye, kasha knish and a couple hot “snapper’s” to wash it all down.Last a nice cold Dr Brown cream soda…..

  2. Julia Says:

    David, you are absolutely right – no deli bashing here! 2nd Avenue Deli, Langers, and so many others feed and nourish us with the old as well as updated favorites, and Katz’s is still a ton of fun (and pastrami!). Looking forward to the new B’klyn fress in a couple of weeks!

  3. Jack Says:

    Walked into the Mile end deli in Brooklyn, met the charming owner and left hungry. Montreal bagel tasted like white bread and the Montreal Pastrami was so highly spiced it wouldn’t go down.

  4. extramsg Says:

    The only thing wrong with so many delis getting their pastrami from so few sources is that it builds homogeneous expectations. Look at these comments on Kenny & Zuke’s after the NYT piece:

    My experience with Montreal bagels is that the interiors do taste fairly white-bready, and to me, it’s the textural contrast between their exteriors (rather crunchy) and interiors that makes them special. And your description of the smoked meat makes me want some NOW!

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