Life

The Death Of The Carnegie Deli And The Tremendous Value Of Food Memories

New York’s vaunted Carnegie Deli is closing at the end of the year. Though you’ll find no shortage of places to find piled meat between two pieces of rye bread after the 79-year-old pastrami peddling establishment clogs its last artery, it won’t be the same. It never is.

We weren’t particularly religious when I was a kid. A handful of synagogue appearances throughout the year before it, we finally stopped going once and for all. Hanukkah instead of Christmas, until the year my Irish-Catholic mother got to finally have her tree. Eventually, the Festival of Lights would come to feel like an appetizer before Santa came to town. I’ve been to exactly one bar-mitzvah and it was not my own. We did a conga line and drank virgin strawberry daiquiris. I went to Jewish day school and remember stapling my hand while hanging construction paper art, nothing else. My Judaism was and is, cultural and food based. And because of that, the Carnegie Deli is my synagogue, though it’s been a while since I last attended a service.

It’s not entirely my fault. The last time I tried to go to the Carnegie Deli, I had a Ron Swanson moment when, after practically skipping down 7th Avenue electrified by the prospect of a potato knish the size of a softball, I discovered that they were closed. It turns out, my house of salty worship was right in the middle of a 10-month shutdown after they were caught diverting gas (this after a court ordered the owners to pay $2.65 million in back wages in 2014). Repairs were required and fines were paid — it was a dent, but nothing fatal for the reputation of New York City’s most famous deli. No, what killed the Carnegie Deli, according to the New York Post, is exhaustion — 65-year-old owner Marianne Harper Levine doesn’t want to deal with the strain of running the place anymore.

Despite this, the Carnegie Deli name isn’t dying, it’s ascending to the in-between space that does not need a physical location to be a financially beneficial thing. Levine is going to continue licensing the name and, one assumes, the sacred pastrami and cheesecake recipes. You’ll probably still be able to buy a box of Carnegie Deli brand pastrami at your local grocery store. And, I guess that’s something… but going to CBGB in the Newark airport and buying a branded shirt at Hot Topic sure as hell ain’t the same as seeing Patti Smith playing in the ’70s (in what’s now a shoe store).

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I don’t want you to think that the Carnegie Deli is a luxurious sandwich haven, it’s just an old deli with a fine twist on a common thing. The seating area is crowded and you sit family style with other meat-crazed denizens and a bowl of pickles. You can hear a buzz of conversation and you can feel the eyes from the pictures of the famous people that are mounted on the wall. Sometimes, those celebrities pop in and stand (or sit) shoulder to shoulder with the hoi polloi — drawn in by the power of iconic food. I literally bumped into stylist David Evangelista once. He was picking up a to-go order while wearing a full-length coat. I don’t have a lot of celebrity sighting stories, but that one is my favorite.

I’ve got a lot of memories that are tied to the Carnegie Deli. The hot pastrami was a shared obsession for me and my father, even though I think we only went there two or three times. We haven’t spoken in more than a year, but I almost feel compelled to pause the rift to tell him about this and share a few seconds of mourning. There was also the time I snuck in a small bottle of Orangina (my favorite drink because I’m quirky) and poured it into a glass under the table so I could experience my perfect meal with my perfect drink. By the way, that perfect meal is a baked potato knish and a hot and salty mound of pastrami on rye bread that absolutely refuses to break down. Then there was the day my wife and I spent my birthday in Central Park, stopping by the deli to pick up food. That’s one of those perfect days that I want to spray paint on the tile walls of my mind so I never forget.

Perfection and the Carnegie Deli were always aligned for me, which is why this news is particularly sad. Specialness is defined solely by what something means to you, but that certain magic can rise a few levels above if it has that same value to a lot of people.

I’ll make my pilgrimage to the Carnegie Deli before it closes at the end of December. The glow will dim a little when I walk in, because everything is worse in reality than it is in memory. I’ll be annoyed by the wait as other nostalgic diners encroach upon the joy of my journey with their pointed elbows and their big coats, while I ruin their time with the girth of my physical presence. That’s New York in the winter: “F*ck me? No, f*ck you.” But none of that will matter in the long run. Me and my fellow worshippers will sit together and we’ll all drip with meat sweat and bask in the pure bliss that comes from the perfect sandwich; one that is the size of my head and as heavy as my heart, because the only thing left now is “goodbye.”

Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.

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