When European Jews immigrated to the United States in the late 19th Century, they found something they’d never experienced before.
A land of opportunity? Eh. Religious freedom? Maybe.
No, what the Jews from southern and eastern Europe — many of whom congregated in New York, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — discovered was beef; cheaper and more abundant than they’d ever seen.
“Beef was more available in America than in any place Jews had ever lived,” wrote Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, in a 2007 article, “Pastrami Land, the Jewish Deli in New York City,” quoted in the New York Times. “In America, the Jews became the people of the brisket.”
Brisket — and its even fattier neighbor, navel plate — were tough, inexpensive cuts from cattle’s underside. The meat required brining or braising and slow cooking to make it toothsome. The New York Jews took corned beef, already part of U.S. immigrant diets, and added wood smoke and the spices of southeastern Europe to create the signature deli meat. According to Levine, Pastrami was invented in New York in the 1880s.
But things have changed in the last 130 years — and most dramatically in the last four. Record drought across the Southwest has resulted in dwindling numbers of cattle. Herds in 2014 hit a 63-year low. (Raising the grazing ruminant is extremely water intensive; a pound of boneless beef requires, on average, upwards of 1,500 gallons of water, according to calculations done by National Geographic.) Add to this increasing demand in Japan and a burgeoning fascination with barbecue in the U.S., and the price of beef — and, more acutely, the price of brisket — has shot through the roof.
“Brisket prices have gone up almost 40 percent or more since I opened in 2013,” said Billy Durney, one of those appropriating the increasingly scarce briskets for his Brooklyn restaurant Hometown Bar-B-Que, in the Times.
More like 47 percent since 2013, according to Gary Morrison, a food industry analyst cited by the Times. And that includes a 14 percent increase in brisket prices just this year.
Tender meat, tough business
“Why anybody would want to go into this business I have no idea,” remarked Dennis Howard, general manager of New York’s iconic Carnegie Deli. “Deli is 99 percent meat and it’s really going up and up in price.”
“Only an idiot like me still hangs in there,” said Howard, who appears in “Deli Man,” a new documentary about the trials and rewards of life in the pastrami trade.
“It is a tough business,” said David Sax, author of the 2009 book “Save the Deli.”
Sax recounts in “Deli Man” how, in 1931, at the peak of the deli’s popularity, New York City boasted some 1,500 kosher delis. Add to that all the not-strictly-kosher “kosher-style” purveyors of Jewish-American food, and Sax estimates there easily might have been two or three times that many delis in the city.
“Now it’s really down to just a couple hundred around the country,” Sax said.
Changing dietary tastes and a shift in demographics have also contributed to the decline of the traditional deli, of course.
Norman Rappaport of Long Island’s Woodro Deli recalls a time when his restaurant was packed from morning till night. Now, however, “those same people, they either die or move to Florida,” he said.
There is a new generation of restaurants reinterpreting the cuisine for a new audience, like New York’s Montreal-style Mile End, Washington, D.C.’s DGS Delicatessen and San Francisco’s Wise Sons. And then there is Ziggy Gruber, the “star” of the documentary “Deli Man,” who has made it his mission to preserve the haimishe maykholim, the traditional, home-style plates, in his Houston, Texas, deli, Kenny and Ziggy’s.
Of course, to many in that community, this old-world cooking is the newest thing.
“Of course we sell a lot more pastrami and things like that which are better known,” Gruber told the Jewish Daily Forward, “but non-Jewish customers see me on the Food Network and order kishke [stuffed intestine] or gribenes [cracklings].”
“It’s funny because a lot of Jews have stopped eating stuff like that and here non-Jews are coming in and think it tastes great,” Gruber said.
Still, the new delis are subject to the same economic pressures as the old ones.
“I look at the numbers from the deli and I cry,” said Wise Sons’ co-owner Evan Bloom in the documentary.
And, for every celebrated success story there is a deeply lamented loss — and likely many. Gruber originally tried to open a deli in Los Angeles, but had to close after a dispute with the landlord. New York’s Carnegie Deli recently had to shutter its back room — decreasing the restaurant’s seating capacity by more than half — because of a rent increase.
And then there is the story of the Stage Deli.
The Stage was started by Russian-Jewish immigrant Max Asnes in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district in 1937. “There are few Jewish delis in America that were as influential to the evolution of the deli’s culture than the Stage,” wrote David Sax in the Forward. “It was the deli that many others took their cues from, the deli that made the food famous, the place that Americanized the Jewish delicatessen.”
And it was the “pastrami wars” the Stage waged with it’s nearby neighbor, the Carnegie, that were blamed by some for the astronomical size (and, by some accounts, the astronomical prices) of the classic New York deli sandwich.
“I charge $15 for a corned beef sandwich, and people look at me like I’m crazy. But the same person goes out at night and goes to a local bar around here, a restaurant, orders an $18 martini and they don’t bat an eye,” said Steve Auerbach, one of the owners of the Stage, when he was interviewed a couple of years ago for “Deli Man.” “And they’re telling me, ‘What, you don’t give coleslaw away anymore?’ C’mon I got rent to pay.”
The Stage Deli closed in late 2012 after 75 years in business. The reason cited: high rent.
Profit and loss
Only four traditional New York delis own their own buildings — the Carnegie, Katz’s, Sarge’s and the 2nd Ave. Deli (which is no longer on 2nd Ave.) — and so have some control over their fate. But even they cannot escape the economics of the pastrami sandwich.
“The margins for the deli biz are made in the sides and sodas,” explained “Deli Man” director Erik Greenberg Anjou to Al Jazeera. “But let's face it, if there's no meat, there's no such thing as the Jewish deli.”
Hard as it may seem to believe, there is almost no profit in a pastrami sandwich anymore. At Katz’s, where a hefty, hand-sliced pastrami on rye will cost you nearly $20, it takes roughly a pound-and-a-half of raw navel plate to yield a three-quarter-pound sandwich.
“At Katz’s, the raw navels are wet-cured for weeks before being coated in a dry rub of salt and spices, then smoked at a low temperature for about three days,” wrote Jordan Weissmann in Slate. “Afterward, they’re steamed to soften up the meat, before the deli’s famous countermen — who are unionized, with health benefits — hand-slice it on the spot for customers.”
“In the typical deli,” explained Greenberg Anjou, “food costs are typically between 29 percent and 32 percent.” The profit margin, at its best, is about 10 percent.
And that was before beef prices soared more than 40 percent.
“Our food costs are huge and the net-net profits — I wouldn’t even tell you what I think they are,” lamented Jay Parker, a second generation deli man at Ben’s Best in Queens. “If you were an investor, you would not be looking here.”
But for owners like Parker, and for the customers who waited in the long line outside the Carnegie Deli near midnight on a chilly, recent Friday, there is something more alluring than profit.
“I always think, I should order something else,” said one Carnegie regular, “but then the smell hits you.”
“I’m a pastrami man,” he said.