Are Our Beloved Jewish Delis On The Way Out?

The 24-news cycle is a living, breathing horror show. Good news is alive and well for the last five-minute sections of hour-long programs, but bad news is all the rage for the first fifty-five. With the need by editors and managers to draw numbers to their programming, and the unequivocal truth that "if it bleeds, it leads" due to viewers at home having a propensity to glue their eyes to the set when the world is at its most violent, it's an increasing wonder that news junkies are ever able to leave their homes. Which is a long way of saying that we've become accustomed to hearing bad news. Waking up every morning to a newspaper chock-full of murders, natural disasters and frustrating job reports is the norm. We've developed a callused barrier, keeping bad news out in order to go about our daily lives.

And yet, that barrier completely failed me the other day when I was reading a piece in the L.A. Times. No, it's not a horror story about a puppy orphanage being burnt down or something like that. Instead, what stopped me in my tracks is the strong implication that Jewish delis are on their way out. The reason? Simply a lack of need for them as more and more options are available to the consumers.

Increasing apathy, particularly from younger patrons, has driven traditional Jewish delicatessens from their mid-century pinnacle. The decline seems to be accelerating partly because of health concerns over the schmaltz-spread fare and partly because bagels are now available in every supermarket.

On top of that is simply the change in lifestyles over the past decades. In a world that's become easier and easier to have everything you need at your fingertips, perhaps the deli may mimic the slow decline of the movie theater.

"There's nothing that can bring back the centrality of the deli in either Jewish life or American life," said Ted Merwin, an expert on Jewish culture and a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. "There's no way they're going to survive in the numbers they once did."

While it's always tough to completely trust trend-pieces as they have a way of morphing a small handful of sought-after coincidences as a great epidemic, the piece certainly has a point. Just in the past few years I've noticed my personal restaurant-going experience shifting from constantly devouring layered pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soups -- in between helpings of complimentary pickles, of course -- at these classic Jewish delis in lieu of scrolling Yelp reviews to try out a new kid on the block. In a city that's the most competitive landscape for restaurants, during a time when meat-eating has once again become fashionable, if the older more-faithful clientele stops swinging by (perhaps because of their lack of mobility or, well, ability to breath anymore), perhaps this will be the final nail struck into the coffin of L.A.'s famed deli scene.

But reading about these closings may actually be the glass-half-empty approach to what's going on. More than ever, especially in L.A., it's actually easier to get deli-quality food in non-deli settings. Eagle Rock's The Oinkster has a pastrami sandwich to die for. And the various Umami Restaurant Group joints are offering contemporary takes on deli classics. So while it's easy to read something like that and think "WHY ARE THE DELIS DYING!" the more accurate point-of-view may be that these types of delis are dying because the industry is actually thriving.

Then again, maybe this is all for naught. To find evidence of these delis's ability to weather storms through the years, one need only look at the four-digit number next to their "Established" sign. Canter's has been around since 1931. Langer's since 1947. Nate and Al's since 1945. Greenblatt's since 1926. These culinary mainstays have watched trends ramp up and, ultimately, die out more than designers in the fashion world. And yet still, here they are, putting out jars of pickled eggs and slicing the roast beef, and plan to continue doing so for another few generations.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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