Paying Respect To Carnegie Deli

The New York Times laid out the situation:

Live in New York long enough and you will lose somewhere you love. Good things die here. It’s what keeps the place alive.

But every now and then a big one goes, as it did on a recent morning when the owner of Carnegie Delisuddenly announced that the Manhattan sandwich place would be shutting down at the end of the year.

The famous Jewish restaurant on Seventh Avenue and 55th Street has been putting out cardio-logically perilous fare since 1937. When it closes its doors on Dec. 31, the city will lose not only an irreplaceably iconic four-inch-tall pastrami sandwich but also a small piece of itself.

News of the restaurant’s demise emerged at 7 a.m. on a Friday when, at a meeting in the dining room, the owner, Marian Harper, told about 25 early-shift employees that she could no longer bear the stressful challenges of restaurant life.

“The restaurant business is one of the hardest jobs in New York City,” Harper later said in a formal statement issued by her publicist. “At this stage in my life, the early morning to late night days have taken a toll, along with my sleepless nights and grueling hours.”

The shock waves quickly followed. Eater, the culinary website, reported on the closing with a mournful article with the headline: “Pastrami Bombshell.” Twitter was full of photographs of deli meat and melancholy posts: “How’s a Jew like me supposed to suffer a heart attack at age 37 in this city anymore?” And “It’s pastrami on cry.”

The Atlantic added color:

Like alligators in the subways, the Carnegie Deli is buried in the mythos of Manhattan, an idea of what New York City is. A dish of sour pickles. Brusque, harried servers ferrying plates of gargantuan corned beef sandwiches across linoleum floors. Autographed photos of out-of-time celebrities and the promise of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.

Armed with a menu overstuffed with both cured meat and kitsch – “Tongues for the Memory” and “Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver” are staple sandwiches — Carnegie’s fare still stands at the forefront of the outsized New York foodscape, a portrait in exaggeration. “The most identifiable thing [about the Carnegie Deli] is size.” David Sax, an author of “Save The Deli,” explains. “The size of those … sandwiches. Carnegie kicked off an arms race in sandwich sizes in the 1970s and 80s and initially it was a war between them and Stage [Deli].”…

Situated around the corner from the deli’s namesake, Carnegie Hall, these skyscraper-shaped sandwiches were part of the gimmick. Like the interspersing of New York City iconography in the opening scene of Manhattan, Woody Allen sets the telling of Broadway Danny Rose, a tale of showbiz redemption, at a table in the back of Carnegie Deli.

“Carnegie became well known because it was near Broadway because it was near the great centers of screenwriting and comedy and production and late night,” says Sax. “This was pre-Letterman. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and the Golden Age, that’s when Carnegie really grew in prominence. And so, all the photos that line the walls, the connection with Woody Allen, that was the pin that set the genesis of modern American comedy. That restaurant and Stage [Deli] were tied to it. It associated the Jewish deli with that in the popular imagination.”

Of course, just as the Borscht Belt fell out of favor, Carnegie Deli also lost its luster as its prices and novelty status made it more and more of a tourist trap than a New Yorker standby. It almost seems fitting that the deli will actually live on at outlets in Vegas casinos and Madison Square Garden. Almost.

Over the past quarter-century, supermarket delis spread from ethnic enclaves in major cities across the nation to the point, today, where offering a full-service deli is a mark of what it means to be a supermarket.

Indeed, with the growth of competition in the center store, the deli department remains perhaps the most important way for a store to differentiate itself. As a result, the growth in prepared food offerings, hot food bars, in-store seating and more has made the deli a flagship of the modern supermarket.

Yet, for those who remember the old time deli, who remember a day when the most important differentiator was that a store cut its own lox — the growth of the deli concept, the exceptional pizza programs, wok stations and soup bars — well that’s all bittersweet.

We suspect that the Carnegie Deli is really closing because it is worth more dead than alive. The building can be knocked down, redeveloped, rented out for a lot more than can be derived from working day and night selling expensive sandwiches. Not too many native New Yorkers went to the Carnegie Deli, but its flag was a reminder of a deli culture that has been declining for a long time.

Now, one wonders how many people know the word deli – emblazoned on supermarket signs across America – is actually shorthand for delicatessen? And how many know that the word was at the epicenter of a culture, once vibrant and rich, now no more?