Long before there were massive supermarket chains, people would go to one place for their sliced meats and cold cuts — the neighborhood deli. Ever since the mid-1800s, when delis began popping up in New York City, this was the standard way of procuring delicious meats.
But as time went on, many of the classic delis were supplanted by pre-packaged meat vendors and their hyper-processed foods. Taste and freshness ultimately took a back seat to convenience, and old school delis as we know them began to languish.
In recent years, however, that’s begun to change.
The Decline and Rebirth of the Deli
In his article at First We Feast, Phillip Mlynar talks about the perilous state of Jewish delis in NYC with rapper III Bill. Not only is the time-honored culinary institution falling by the wayside, but as some delis gradually disappear, so do many of the associated cultural traditions.
While it’s true that traditional delis have taken a hit over the years, they’re still ingrained in the fabric of American cuisine, and we’re beginning to see a new sense of appreciation for them. Food writer Vered Guttman says the deli renaissance they’ve been seeing in the nation’s capital was started by the revival in New York City. She adds that it’s becoming a draw for many millennials and that there’s a new group of operators these days.
This is largely a younger generation that still has reverence for how things were done in the past. And even though they may put their own unique spin on things, there’s a deep appreciation for traditional processes that is evident in the end product.
And this is good news because there are some distinct advantages to buying at the deli counter rather than buying pre-packaged deli meats. Here are some of the most glaring.
Deli Cuts Are Fresher
If you’re a fan of freshness, it’s a no brainer that you should get your meats from the deli. There’s really no comparison between eating a delicious sandwich made from scratch at the hands of a professional and throwing together a sandwich where the meat has been sitting in a vacuum-sealed package for weeks or maybe even months.
In fact, some delis still make the pastrami they sell, Deborah Dunn at The Wall Street Journal points out. Passionate about freshness and providing customers with the best possible product, they’re willing to go through the arduous process that comes with cooking pastrami. As Jan Newberry highlights in FineCooking, this involves choosing the right cuts, brining the meat by soaking it in a solution for a week, seasoning it and slow cooking it at a low temperature. Traditional pastrami preparation is truly a labor of love and not for individuals who lack patience.
An added plus is that many delis make other foods in-house such as soups, salads, dressings, pesto and hummus. These side dishes only add to the deli meats, making for a superb eating experience that’s difficult to replicate.
Deli Ingredients Are Higher Quality
You could make the argument that pre-packaged deli meat is okay when you look at it from a utilitarian standpoint. If you’re simply looking for a quick meal that will fill you up so you can go on about your day, then it certainly serves it purpose.
But let’s be honest. There’s no way you’re going to get the same level of quality that you would by ordering at a deli counter. Even the better brands can’t compete with top-rated delis that have been at it for decades.
Take for instance the 2nd Ave Deli that’s been a NYC staple since 1954. This place is an institution that’s been preparing thick deli sandwiches piled high with expertly prepared meat for over 60 years. And even “new school” delis like Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, Oregon pay close attention to tradition and provide their customers with mouthwatering classics like pastrami and chopped liver. They go out of their way to make sure everything is just right and don’t cut corners.
Delis like these use the best ingredients and have a deep knowledge that often spans generations. So there’s just no way to substitute this, which is a big reason why the deli counter will always have a one up over pre-packaged deli meat. You’re simply getting a superior product.
Deli Cuts Are Healthier
You also have to take the health implications into consideration. While there are numerous factors that determine how healthy (or unhealthy) sliced meats are, items purchased at the deli counter are generally healthier than those that are pre-packaged. Why?
First, highly processed foods tend to have a high sodium content and are packed with preservatives, which can increase the risk of cancer, food and nutrition expert Frances Largeman-Roth writes. Plus the artificial ingredients of processed foods are extremely low in nutrition, which increases the overall risk of illness and poor health, Kris Gunnars, founder of Authority Nutrition, adds at Medical News Today.
And there’s another issue that might not be so obvious. Largeman-Roth says that once you open a package of deli meat and put it in the refrigerator, “the clock is ticking” and you typically have a maximum of five days to consume it before listeria (a type of bacteria) can start growing. The Heathline team list symptoms of listeriosis as including: headaches, nausea, muscle aches and in more severe cases, convulsions or seizures.
You Get an Authentic Experience
In addition to the taste and health factors, you have to take into account the ambience and atmosphere that you get when walking in the door. A great deli isn’t just a place to eat, it’s an experience.
And in places like Liebman’s Kosher Deli in the Bronx, which opened in 1958, you can’t help but feel a sense of history — it’s like being transported back in time. Liebman’s is still under the same ownership, restaurant critic Robert Sietsema at Eater NY writes. He says the old-fashioned ambience of wood-grain formica and neon lights in the front windows give it a distinct feel that’s very warm and inviting.
Or what about Fine & Shapiro on the Upper West Side? Here’s a deli that’s closing in on its 100-year anniversary. Stepping inside is like opening a time capsule where you can get your fill of a delicious spread of classic deli favorites.
And let’s not forget about the sense of community so common in the traditional deli, the kind of place where long-term patrons can catch up on the news of the day.
The Nostalgia Factor
For some, walking into these delis conjures up a certain sentimentality. Maybe you remember looking at the meat counter as a child, staring at the delicious variety of cuts of meat. Or maybe it’s the distinctive aroma you smell in an authentic deli — the freshness of the ingredients palpable.
Although you may not be able to put your finger on it exactly, visiting a deli gives a lot of people those warm and fuzzy feelings and is very nostalgic. Having the ability to evoke this type of nostalgia is extremely powerful and a major selling point for many patrons.
This is especially true for the delis that have been around for decades. In many cases, these culinary gems have gone relatively unchanged and are places where tradition is still valued above all else.
In fact, the nostalgia factor is often an integral part of their success, Jeanette Settembre at Moneyish writes, and is how old school Jewish delis stay relevant. In many ways, the appeal of these places transcends the food, and the emotional impact is equally as important as the taste.
Restaurant consultant Jason Kaplan tells Settembre these delis are “what you would call legacy businesses and definitely New York staples.” They’re establishments that are impossible to replicate, which is what adds to their mystique.