By JOAN NATHAN
HOBBY’S DELICATESSEN & RESTAURANT in downtown Newark may have lost much of its more traditional clientele over the years, but it has held on to tradition. The corned beef and the tongue are cured for 14 days in stainless steel bins in the basement. The salamis hanging on the wall look as if they’ve been drying there, their flavor intensifying, since the Brummer family bought the place in 1962.
Samuel Brummer and his sons, Michael and Marc, even make their own matzo ball soup and potato pancakes.
But in Newark, as in so many cities, holding on has been tough for delis.
“In 1945, there were 12 delis in Newark,” said Samuel Brummer, 86. “Now we are only two.”
Old customers moved on, but new ones keep them going.
“Our clientele used to be 10 percent black and 75 percent Jewish,” he said. “Now it is 50/50.”
David Sax, a 30-year-old freelance writer, listened and nodded. Many delis are seeing more African-American customers.
“In many ways, deli owners in places like Detroit or Chicago have told me, they are better deli clients than Jews,” Mr. Sax said referring to African-Americans. “They accept it as it is. Take a corned beef sandwich. A Jewish customer will say, ‘I want the corned beef lean, from the middle of the brisket,’ because their grandfathers did. It’s like Jews going to a Chinese restaurant. They love it for what it is and they are better clients because of it.”
Mr. Sax loves delis for what they are and mourns the loss of so many of them around the country. For the last two years he has been writing the blog Save the Deli celebrating great delis and chronicling their demise. And this month Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing his book “Save the Deli,” an account of his journey of discovery through the world of delis, from New York to Toronto, Detroit, Miami and Los Angeles; London, Paris and Poland.
After digging into a sandwich of fresh roast turkey, with juicy white and dark meat carved off the bone, at Hobby’s, we headed to some Jewish delis clinging to old ways that stretch back a century.
When Eastern European Jews began immigrating to New York by the thousands in the late 19th century, they found delicatessens started by gentile German immigrants who had brought their pickled and smoked pork and beef to the United States.
“Jews made the deli their own and carved out a niche for themselves,” Mr. Sax said.
Jewish delis began to predominate. By the 1930s, New York City alone had at least 1,500 kosher and kosher style, Mr. Sax said. Today there about two dozen kosher ones left.
Mr. Sax feels emotionally drawn to delis. “I grew up with salami sandwiches, baby beef and matzo ball soup,” said Mr. Sax (a Toronto native).
As an undergraduate at McGill University he took a course called “the Sociology of Jews in North America.” While researching a term paper on Jewish delicatessens in North America with a friend, he realized that little had been written about the business of delis. His blog and book will help remedy that.
What he found was not very encouraging. In the old days, everybody cured their own corned beef and pastrami, made their own pickles, and used bread from a neighboring bakery. Now, few even make their own matzo balls.
Zayda’s Kosher Deli in South Orange, N.J., is actually a supermarket that makes a line of kosher classics like kugels, chicken soup and kasha varnishkes sold at stores in the area like Shop-Rite, Fairway and Whole Foods. But when we stopped in at Zayda’s, there was no place to schmooze and no owner in sight.
“This is what the original deli was like,” Mr. Sax said. “It was a convenience store, a neighborhood grocer, a place to go for sandwich meats and kosher foods.”
Irving’s Delicatessen on Route 10 in Livingston, N.J., had room to schmooze, more than their owners would like. It’s in a plaza with several casualties of the recession, an Office Depot, a furniture store and a carpet store, all closed. Most of Irving’s 140 seats were empty in the middle of the day.
“I’m losing money every day,” said Marc Singer, the manager who runs the deli with his cousin Michael Holst, the owner. “In the depth of the summer we had no one coming through the door.”
But delis are up against more than a bad economy. “Jews are largely assimilated and don’t want to eat only Jewish food,” Mr. Sax said.
When they do, they have to face concerns that might have been overlooked a few years ago. Foods like pastrami and kishke (beef intestine casings stuffed with brisket fat or chicken fat, matzo meal, onions and carrots) are delicious, but they’re not health food.
Doing things right costs money, even when foods aren’t prepared in house.
“Quality New York deli meats come at a high price,” Mr. Singer said. “I count myself fortunate to get $12.95 in New Jersey for a corned beef sandwich that would sell for $16.95 in the city.”
To compete with chain restaurants that offer mass-produced deli products, mom-and-pop restaurants ultimately make little on their meat. “Every other corner deli sells Boar’s Head brand,” Mr. Sax said.
Irving’s uses the same pastrami supplier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as Katz’s on the Lower East Side and has a former Katz employee, Pedro Hernandez, hand cutting his meat.
Mr. Sax, who spent a night behind the counter learning to slice meat at Katz’s, said the best delis have a master cutter, not a slicing machine. When you steam a piece of meat for a long time, as with a good piece of pastrami once it has been cured and smoked, it will tear apart if it isn’t cut by hand.
Mr. Singer added, “Hebrew National pastramis are a round cut intended for machine slicing at the local deli.”
And Hebrew National, once owned by a Jewish family, the Pineses, is now under ConAgra Foods.
Mr. Sax appreciates the little guys who make as much of their own food as possible, like Hobby’s house-cured corned beef and Brent’s Deli’s homemade kishke in Los Angeles, a deli town for which he has high regard.
And in his book he considers the pairing of “slowly steamed pastrami and hot crusty double-baked rye bread infused with caraway seeds” at Langer’s Delicatessen and Restaurant in Los Angeles a perfect sandwich.
Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, has an awfully good pastrami sandwich and nice, crisp zucchini potato latkes. Caricatures of pickles and sandwiches share the walls of the deli with photographs from the 1940s of deli workers union dinners.
Lloyd Lederman, a third-generation deli owner who opened Jay & Lloyd’s in 1993, wore a hat shaped like a giant hot dog.
“You have to have a deli shtick,” said Mr. Lederman, 52. “We go into the dining room and sit down with the customers and schmooze. We used to have rude waiters to add to the shtick. We put a joke of the day on the cash register. My dad did it and I do it. You have to have a passion.”
Mr. Sax said: “For me, the great thing about that place is the joy he has for his life. For the deli man, all of life is about the deli.”