Major Project: In Search of the Best Hot Pastrami: The Jewish Delis of New York City (2018)

By November 10, 2018 June 26th, 2019 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish Delis was written by Benjamin O’Connor, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

The topic that I have chosen for my major project is Jewish delicatessens in New York City. There are several reasons that I am interested in this topic: I like food, I particularly like certain deli items which you will hear a lot more about shortly, and I am curious about the history of delis and why there are fewer around these days than there used to be. In this presentation, I am going to talk about the history of the Jewish deli, the role that they played for immigrants from eastern Europe, and the kind of food they are famous for serving. In addition, I will be reviewing four Jewish delis in New York City and comparing their versions of several iconic deli dishes

The first Jewish deli opened in New York City in 1888. Delis were not just Jewish. They were originally German; in fact, the word delicatessen actually is German for “delicious to eat”. The deli was a place for immigrants from eastern Europe to find a home away from home with foods from their homeland and other people of the same religion. Jewish delis also provided foods that were hard to find elsewhere such as kosher food.

In the early to mid 1900s, Jewish delis were very popular. A lot of them were in the Yiddish theater district downtown, so the stars of the shows would invite the whole audience to come for a deli meal afterwards. There were even special dishes named after the stars of the theater and other celebrities too.

In the 1920s and 30s there were about 1,500 Jewish delis in New York City. Delis also served very fancy food such as caviar in the 1930s. Since a lot of people went to Jewish delis, politicians campaigned there to get the Jewish vote. In addition, delis became spots to hang out and meet with friends particularly in the theater district, especially for immigrants. By the mid 1900s, Jews became more assimilated and the delis served more and different food.

In addition to eating a wider range of food, Jews in New York City were assimilating in other ways.  Many became more health-conscious and thought deli food was too laden with fat and calories. Jews also wanted to socialize with a broader range of people. According to the Economist, “just as it had started to coalesce, this vibrant world of intermingled classes and races began as suddenly to dissolve. [there were] many causes: emigration from cities, concerns about calories and cholesterol, the spread of supermarkets, and a tendency among mid-20th-century Jews to downplay their ethnicity.”

In addition, it is very expensive to run an “authentic” Jewish deli. The high-quality food is costly, and the preserving of the food requires a lot of preparation and takes a long time.  Most of it is home-made and hand-sliced, all of which requires extensive and expensive labor. Most of the delis are family run, and the owners get to know the customers and work at cultivating those relationships.

Given these realities, Jewish delis began to close as family owners could not sustain the work and the expense of running them.  The number of Jewish delis in New York City declined from about 1,500 in the 1930s to only about 15 proper Jewish delis nowadays.  That is a startling decline in what was a vibrant industry for a long time.

A key part of my main project was my testing of iconic foods from different Jewish delis around New York City. I am going to describe the foods, why they are important practically and symbolically, and why I chose to sample them.

The first contestant is … the classic pastrami sandwich. I chose this because I like pastrami a lot and it is a classic deli food. “As Claudia Rodin noted in The Book of Jewish Food, “One of the great inventions of the American deli was pastrami.”” Pastrami originated in Romania and was brought to the US by immigrants. She went on the explain, “The centerpiece of any New York Jewish deli is pastrami.  This is usually a beef brisket that’s been soaked in brine for an extended period (like corned beef), rubbed with spices that include crushed black peppercorns and coriander seed, then smoked and allowed to sit before a final boiling/steaming prior to cutting.” I sometimes make pastrami sandwiches at home.

The next contestant is …matzo ball soup. Russian Jews brought chicken soup and matzo balls to the US with them. Chicken soup is also known as “Jewish penicillin” for its healing and comforting properties. Matzo balls go really well with chicken soup and they also provide a filling component. My dad makes matzo ball soup almost every Passover, and I enjoy it a lot.

And the final contestant is … the bagel. There is some dispute about the origin of the bagel. Some think it originated in Poland, but others think that it came from the Middle East. In America the bagel was familiar just to Jews until the 1970s when Lenders introduced the bagel to mainstream America. Most New Yorkers are snobs about their bagels and many Upper West Siders are still mourning the departure of H&H bagels. I like bagels. I eat at least one every week for breakfast. I enjoy sesame bagels with cream cheese. And if I can, I will have them with smoked salmon on the side.

The first of the delis that I visited was The Second Avenue Deli. It was founded in 1954 by Abe Lebewohl, a Romanian immigrant who did odd jobs to get enough money to start the deli. Over time it expanded from a 12 seat diner to a 250 seat restaurant. The business took a tragic turn when Abe was murdered in 1996 on his way to the bank. They still haven’t caught the person who did it. The deli was run for 10 more years by his widow but closed in 2006. It was reopened by Abe’s nephews with two branches.

When I walked into the Second Avenue Deli, I noticed a big counter displaying different vegetables, meats and fish selections. As I got further into the restaurant, I noticed that the seating was broken into sections with 4 to 5 tables and booths in each section. It was packed with people and it was noisy. The menu was large but not overwhelming and besides, we knew what we were ordering. I first ordered a pastrami sandwich on rye, which was very good and a lot better than the ones that I made at home. For $20 the sandwich didn’t come with any sides, which I noted.

After that, I ordered a matzo ball soup. It was served in a way I hadn’t seen before, which involved presenting a huge matzo ball in a bowl and pouring the broth over it. The soup had noodles and a few vegetables in it and was saltier than other matzo ball soups that I had before, but I liked it. The ball was big, fluffy, and didn’t have a lot of flavor but it soaked up the flavor from the soup. I thought it was above average. I was full after having a pastrami sandwich and matzo ball soup, so I took the bagel home. It was a plain bagel and I had it with my own cream cheese the next day. I liked it as much as the bagels which I am most used to from Fairway. The service was good, but it was hard to get their attention.

The next deli that I visited was Barney Greengrass on west 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The deli was founded in 1908 by Barney Greengrass, known as “the sturgeon king,” and was originally on 113th street. In 1929, Barney Greengrass moved to its current location. Barney’s son, Moe, took over in 1955 and grandson, Gary, in 1982. It was rated best deli on the Zagat survey from 1997 to 2007.

It was a busy Saturday morning, and the place was packed. I was with my family and mentor. We had to wait about 15 minutes to be seated since it was so crowded. When I first went inside, I saw two parallel counters for fish, bagels and other items. There were tables in between the counters to eat at, making the room feel more cramped. In the second room, there was an eating area with wallpaper depicting scenes of New Orleans from at least 50 years ago.

We had a very good meal. The pastrami sandwich was good and very flavorful, but not better than the one at the Second Avenue Deli. The matzo ball soup was delicious, with a large but fluffy matzo ball and a nice broth. I took home the bagel again. I had it later that day, and I thought it was outstanding: it was soft and chewy at the same time. The service was good; even though the waiters were tied up with the large number of people there, they took the time to answer my questions.

A few weeks after we ate at Barney Greengrass, I had an interview with Barney’s grandson, Gary. He currently owns and manages the restaurant. After he graduated from college, Gary decided to go into the family business. It seemed to me that he likes his job. Although my research shows a decline in the Jewish deli business, Gary seems relatively optimistic about Barney Greengrass. He shared some interesting information about his top selling foods: bagels, lox, whitefish, sturgeon, cheese and surprisingly fresh-squeezed orange juice. He said that the internet has helped business by making it easier for people to order food from the restaurant. He said that the deli binds the generations of Jewish families together and introduces deli food to younger customers. Lastly, he told me why the wallpaper depicted scenes from New Orleans: because it probably was cheap, they are fine with it, so they leave it up.

After Barney Greengrass, I visited Sarge’s deli with my dad. It was founded in 1964 is the only deli that I visited that is open 24/7.

Sarge’s is located between East 36th and 37th Streets on Third Avenue. Before I went inside, I noticed a “B” sanitary rating which concerned me. When I got inside there was a long room. At the front of the room there were counters on both sides with fish, meat and other foods you might find at a delicatessen. Further in, there was the seating area that stretched to the back where the bathrooms were. I noticed that Sarge’s was like a diner as well as a deli. It had burgers as well as traditional deli food.

The pastrami sandwich was meh. I didn’t taste the pepper and the smoky flavor was very pronounced. The bread didn’t taste like rye. Also, the sandwich was really big and the pastrami tasted a lot like corned beef. The matzo ball soup could be served with or without noodles and a matzo ball. I ordered mine with noodles. Unlike the other delis, it didn’t have any chicken or vegetables. The matzo ball was especially smooth and the broth was salty. I thought it was good, but it wasn’t outstanding. The bagel was a standard city bagel, nothing special.

The service was good. The servers came to our table quickly. The tables turned over quickly, and the deli got more crowded over time. Nevertheless, we did not feel rushed.

The final deli we visited was Katz’s on the Lower East Side. Katz’s delicatessen was founded in 1888 by the Iceland brothers. They were bought out by Willy Katz in 1903. In the early 1900s Katz’s was an important landmark for the immigrant community on the Lower East Side. Later it became popular with clients of Yiddish theater. Katz’s was a family-run business until the 1980s, and it is currently operated by family friends.

The deli was in a cavernous room. The counters for picking up food and finding a table were on the right and the rest of the space was taken up by tables. Your ticket was handed to you when you went in, and as you bought food more money would be added to the ticket. At the end of the ticket holder’s visit, they would have to show the ticket to the cashier and pay for their food. There were signs everywhere saying that a lost ticket would be a $50 minimum fee. Speaking of food…

The pastrami sandwich that I had was AMAZING: the pastrami was thick cut and flavorful. The rye bread was really good and it didn’t come with anything else like the sandwiches at the other delis. The matzo ball soup was just a matzo ball and broth. The matzo ball looked smaller than those at the other delis and the texture was rougher. The broth had some flavor and was just, well, broth.

Our server was attentive and brought us food and drinks quickly. Katz’s was packed with a diverse group of people. It was so busy that we had to share a table with two other people.

When I started this project, I wasn’t sure what I would learn about Jewish delis. It was like a history lesson, learning about the decline and the change of the deli business. All of the delis that I visited were very different from one another: Second Avenue Deli was more like a traditional restaurant while others featured the counter more than the restaurant.

In spite of the decline of the deli business, I feel optimistic about the survival of the remaining Jewish delis in New York City. I feel optimistic because they seem to have a lot of business and customers. There are enough deli lovers out there, Jews and non-Jews, to support the small number of delis that are still operating. Plus, some of these delis are popular with tourists. And there will always be a market for hot pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup and real New York bagels.