The rise of delicatessen

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This article is part of our latest special report on design, on creative people finding new ways to interpret ideas from the past.


Vicki Bodwell is an internet retail executive who moved from Texas to New York in the late 1980s. Over breakfast recently, she told me in detail about TriBeCa’s very authentic bagel store where her family likes to go on sunday mornings. As she spoke, I thought there was a limit to the depth of the roots of this shop. New York has many historically Jewish neighborhoods, but TriBeCa is not one of them.

The bagel store in question, Zucker’s, is actually the original outpost of a six-store chain, opened in 2006. And its revised take on Jewish cuisine – the bagels are hand-rolled, but you can get them with bacon – is part of a larger trend in which all forms of ethnic food are considered the staple of 21st century DIY crafts.

New York, of course, was once a checkerboard of Jewish quarters, and each of those enclaves had one or more kosher grocery stores that followed Orthodox dietary restrictions in which meat and dairy must be kept separate and pork products prohibited. . According to a tally, New York City had more than 1,500 Jewish delicatessens in the 1930s, which have declined in the 10s over the past several decades. Much of the change was caused by demographics; the city’s Jewish population peaked at around 2 million around 1950 and was half that of the early 1980s. salt.

Inevitably the last of the authentic places – including Katz’s Delicatessen, the century-old neon-adorned East Houston Street tourist attraction, and its neighbor, the equally venerable Russ & Daughters store – have been joined by a growing number of mockery: the delicatessen creator.

For those of us who grew up with Jewish delicatessens belonging to our parents ‘or grandparents’ generation, there are pros and cons to revisionist Jewish cuisine. On the one hand, great bagels, loxes and cold cuts are now wonderfully easy to obtain. On the other hand, there is something slightly offbeat about this attempt to resurrect, through skillful branding, the cranky, cerebral, and irreverent Jewish culture that was once a dominant feature of New York City character.

The standard bearer for those mixed emotions could be Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing, a corner store on a stretch of Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, where Greenpoint meets Williamsburg. It was founded in 2016 by brothers Zach and Alex Frankel – one an experienced restaurateur, the other a musician – who were then 28 and 33 years old. The idea for the business came about after waiting an hour at Russ & Daughters for loxes and bagels to bring. to their mother on her 60th birthday.

On the long drive to their mother’s home in the upstate and back, the brothers referred to what Zach Frankel described as “most popular” versions of deli, Jewish and other food: from ‘premium smoked salmon bodega breakfast sandwich to giant Ruben pastrami.

“People always asked us, do you think there are enough Jews living in Greenpoint? Mr. Frankel recalled. Their response: “It’s not necessarily who we’re building this for. Now, the clientele at the lunch break is “a wild mix of characters,” he said. And they order more bacon than any other type of meat.

The decor has been designed as a “tribute” to a number of traditional cold meats. Basically, Frankel’s is a clean room adorned with colorful products and hand-painted panels courtesy of Sam Moses, renowned as one of Coney Island’s finest sign painters. “At one point he almost became the designer because he did all our hand lettering and all the mirrors,” Frankel recalls.

Another revisionist grocery store opened in midtown Manhattan late last year. The United States’ Brooklyn Delicatessen – located a few blocks north of where the Carnegie Deli served stuffed sandwiches until it closed in 2016 – sent the monster-sized Reuben back to the Seventh Avenue. Owned by Shelly Fireman, the restaurateur who also created the Brooklyn Diner around the corner, the deli inspiration isn’t Jewish food per se, but the supremely marketable concept known as Brooklyn.

Here, the visual style is inspired by Times Square, passing by the graphic designer Paula Scher. Ms. Scher loves flamboyant typography, and she also enjoys painting epic scale maps that are whatever when it comes to cartographic accuracy. In collaboration with the makers of Let There Be Neon, she created illuminated signs for USA Brooklyn Delicatessen that manage to transcend the restaurant’s retro style.

Arguably, Ms. Scher’s contribution to the emerging generation of Jewish-style deli meats is an attempt to elevate pastiche to high culture. According to her, she took the language of old-fashioned signage and turned it into an “installation.” He “must have shouted ‘sausage’,” she said. But “in an artistic way, as opposed to the really schlocky deli way.”

Meanwhile, Zucker’s is set to open its new location, its first in downtown Manhattan, just across Sixth Avenue from Bryant Park. This Zucker’s, a wild break with tradition, will offer a bar at the front and bagels at the back.

What is curious is that the decor of the downtown branch, which oddly sounded like an ersatz when Mrs Bodwell first described it to me, is not exactly a derivative of the Jewish restaurants of the past – with the exception of the logo, which suggests that Zucker’s has been around forever. It was hand drawn by restaurant brand company Memo in 2016 and painted with gold leaf on the window. Douglas Riccardi, the director of Memo, hypothesized that his job was to bridge “the gap between the familiar state and the emotional state”. The message: “The brand is now firmly rooted in heritage, championing seminal New York bagels and the mystique of the lox. “

So what is the source of the new appeal of Jewish deli cuisine?

Annelise Orleck, professor of American history at Dartmouth College who grew up in Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, suggested that the source of the current revival could be the Amazonian show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”. The show, which debuted in 2017, was an engaging fantasy about Jewish New York City that Orleck said offered a substitute for the now tarnished version of Woody Allen.

Zach Frankel offered a more predictable explanation. When I brought up examples of designer deli meats in other cities, like Perly’s in Richmond, Va., He replied, “I mean, there are some amazing ones. I’m a ton on Instagram, ”including Courage Bagels in Los Angeles and Bagelsaurus in Cambridge, Mass. (Indeed, I was stunned to realize that overflowing bagels and deli sandwiches take up much of Instagram real estate.)

At a minimum, there are two ways to look at this. A path was suggested to me by Andrea Simon, a documentary filmmaker specializing in Jewish themes. Jewish-inspired restaurants, she argued, are a poor substitute for a worldview. She answered my questions about the meaning of delicatessen by emailing me “Yiddishkeit,” a dismal poem from 1938, whose author, Jacob Glatstein, asked: “Will Jewishness become- it only a folk song, which touches the heart and coats the bowels? with hot honey from memory?

And yet, what Ms Simon saw as a tragedy, Ms Bodwell saw as a touchstone. The 21st century bagel store embodied “everything I love about New York City,” she said.

Or as Mr. Riccardi de Memo put it, “We use food to give us back our culture.”


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