On Feb. 25, a sign went up on the doors of Lansky's, a Jewish delicatessen on the Upper West Side. It read: "We have tried our best, but due to rising costs, we could no longer stay in business." The closure of Lansky's was something of a shock for many—the deli, after all, always seemed to be full. It boasts 327 reviews on Yelp, many from self-identified regulars, and was even visited by Jon Hamm (he ordered matzo ball soup). Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update with Seth Meyers" spoofed one of the menu items, the Jackpot Sandwich, which is made up of seven pounds of meat (turkey, pastrami, corned beef, and salami), Muenster and American cheese, 10 pieces of rye bread, coleslaw, sweet peppers, and Russian dressing. "Of all the Jewish Delis in NYC, you're the best I've ever had," an online reviewer proclaimed. Yet even with its dedicated following, Lansky's couldn't make it. This isn't a rare occurence: David Sax, who wrote Save the Deli, a book documenting his visits to delis around the U.S., Canada, and even London, notes that while New York City was once the "teeming capital of the deli," barely a dozen Jewish delis remain open in Manhattan, even fewer in Brooklyn, and "a mere pair in the Bronx." A Jewish deli, defined by Sax, is one just like Lansky's—its food (pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, matzo ball soup, knishes) originated in the kitchens of early Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants,and when you walk in, the smell is the first thing you notice. Sax chose to fight for these delis because they represent, to him, an important connection to Jewish culture and community. "That matzo ball is who I am," he said in a talk he gave at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. However, as Lansky's feature on Saturday Night Live reveals, the deli is as much a part of New York City's culture as it is a part of Jewish American culture. The crowded tables, the noise, the diversity, the brusque yet genuinely welcoming staff—who call you "hun" in their New York accents but also don't take any bullshit—are all classic deli characteristics that are also unique to New York. The reason for Jewish delis' decline is threefold. First, each deli faces an "atrocious profit margin," according to Sax. To prepare pastrami at a good deli is to brine raw meat, smoke it, and steam it. When a friend of mine ordered a pastrami sandwich from Katz's Delicatessen, the oldest Jewish deli in New York, a huge, meaty brisket was pulled onto the counter across from her, sliced for her to sample, and then sliced again for her sandwich. As she walked away, the brisket was slid off the counter. Sax explains that this process, in which something like 25 percent of the brisket is actually used, earns a deli a dollar or so of profit for each $15 sandwich it serves. The second reason Sax thinks delis are declining is new "health trends." An average meal at a deli is two half-sandwiches as tall as your fist, filled entirely with meats such as pastrami and corned beef. With America's growing sensitivity to the issue of obesity, and especially the recent increased awareness of portion sizes in New York City brought on by Bloomberg's controversial soda ban, these sandwiches are regarded with more caution. Finally, delis are often family-owned businesses, and it is up to the third or fourth generations of immigrant families to commit their careers to maintaining them. It's a tough business to get into, and fewer and fewer young people are interested. The character of the deli has been evolving to combat these issues. Katz's and Lansky's are delis of the traditional type—informal, crowded spaces with warm lighting, prints of New York's skyline, signed photos of celebrities arm-in-arm with managers (whose last names most likely match the names of the delis themselves), and knickknacks like antique tin Coca-Cola signs. But then there are delis like Mile End, a small restaurant in Brooklyn that opened in May of last year. It's as big as a dorm room, with space for just five or six tables, all made of light varnished wood with black faux-leather seats. There is no obvious color in the space—nothing on the walls except a chalkboard bearing specials and a reminder about Shabbat meals every Friday. Beside the cash register is a large tip jar, clear and simple, with a little black label that reads "whadda' mensch!" (Yiddish for "person of integrity"). "Katz's is the Yankees," Sax explains. "Katz's is like the steady link to the past. Mile End is something new and great and also in its own way touching the past." Mile End's new aesthetic doesn't change what's quintessential about a deli—a dedication to preserving the food and culture of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. It follows, then, that Mile End's aesthetic also doesn't change the atmosphere that grows out of this dedication—the feeling of comfortable permanence, an atmosphere Sax and I agree resembles that of a family kitchen: warm, informal, and marked by the casual coexistence of the past and future. When the food comes at Mile End, the waitress smiles and hands you a worn-out hand towel as a napkin, with a red stripe running from edge to edge. This sudden color somehow draws your eye to a very subtle, white shelf high up on one of the walls. On it, perched like photo albums between two jars of pickling red peppers, are six copies of Save the Deli.
by Ayelet Pearl