What it means to have the food we grew up eating and loved be wiped out of our culture only to be replaced by newer, hipper flavours
Words by Bill Cushing; Art by Jemma Jose
As Autumn is the season signifying old age, it only made sense that it was in September that I read of the impending demise of an old and much-loved friend: the Carnegie Deli. Even if you don’t know the Carnegie, you should hope that someone will step in to save the Manhattan gastronomical landmark. However, there have been no discussions of rescue attempts yet and their website shows that they have, in fact, closed down as on the last day of 2016.
The Carnegie had operated since the 1930s just a few blocks south of Central Park on 7th Avenue. It was a place where generations of New Yorkers and tourists learnt about great food, pastries, and of course, Dr. John’s sodas. While there were a few ‘private’ tables, most diners would sit — barracks-style — at long tables, which were really nothing more than hewn wooden slabs on legs. They chowed down as they rubbed elbows and chatted with total strangers proving the myth that New York City makes people cynical and unsavoury — wrong.
The food at the Carnegie was both ample and unbelievably tasty, meaning it was probably judged “bad for you” by today’s BMI-driven dietary standards.
The Carnegie holds a special place in my life for another reason. After more than a year of letters and phone calls, my wife and I met for the first time in New York. It provided the perfect midpoint for us that offered friends we could stay over with and plenty to do during that weekend as we got to know each other.
In fact, the first thing I told her — even before holding her hands or saying “I love you” — was, “You cannot come to New York and NOT have a pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie!”
Even before that, I used to stay at the Gorham, one of the long-standing grand hotels — itself since replaced and renamed, whenever I returned for a visit. That way I could stroll a few doors over for a blintz or a piece of cheesecake at Carnegie at three in the morning, if I so desired. And, now that memory is only that — a memory.
For the Carnegie is to be no more.
The most depressing aspect of this is how many former great eateries have been shutting down in recent memory. I often question what is replacing them, although I have a pretty good idea what the answer to that question is. Perhaps, it really does indicate my own aging process as people’s eating habits evolve over time.
I guess I should have seen it coming. For me, it started in Los Angeles, where I have lived for 20 years now. First, Barney’s Tavern in the Old Town section of Pasadena, home of the best teriyaki burger and potato salad I ever feasted on, closed. Then, Solley’s in Van Nuys, a Kosher deli that also provided assorted other dishes (my favorite being their fettuccine stroganoff, a combination I never would have thought of but latched on to pretty regularly), turned out the lights. I discovered this only while I was in the area and thought of stopping by for a slice of their seven-layer cake. Later on, Billy’s Deli in Glendale shut its doors, ironically only a few months after the passing of one of its best and most enduring waitresses.
Coincidence? I think not.
Not long after, Ernie’s Tacos in Eagle Rock now stands surrounded by chain link barriers after more than 70 years of operation. Moving back east, Victor Koenigs, a German restaurant in New York’s Floral Park, known for its roast beef served on bread freshly baked next door, is now no longer.
About halfway through 2016, Shakers, a local restaurant sitting about a half-mile from our home closed to modify itself from its previously-established diner-style setup to become a bar and grill. While the place did well and had a fair number of steady, if somewhat, older clientele, I assume the decision was based on the recent construction of fashionable apartment complexes nearby.
Envisioning an influx of upscale and younger customers soon to be in the vicinity, the owners of Shakers must see this as a smart move. While I wish them well, I’d have preferred a bit of “tradition” in this case — especially given that there is just such a setup right across the street from their location. I don’t need a bar and grill anymore, but I guess as long as I can still get what I considered one of the better-made Monte Carlo sandwiches, I can live with this revamping. But my fear is that these upcoming food alternatives will cater to more youthful desires for sushi or arugula-and-quinoa quiches or vegan ham sandwiches.
At my age, I have so few vices left to indulge that I would like to at least keep a grip on my “lecture-inducing” eating practices. There used to be a joke that you knew you were aging when you opened the morning paper to the obituary page before checking the sports section. Perhaps the new sign of aging may be seeing ingredients tending to the exotic and reading unrecognisable menu items.
After all, what are we being left with? Alas, all that remains, apparently, are burger chains, burger joints or nouveau-hip eateries that really aren’t any major improvement over the other two options: Applebees instead of Solley’s, Chile’s over Billy’s.
It is, indeed, the end of the world as I’ve known it.
What am I to conclude from all this? Not really much other than the thought that if we are indeed what we eat, then I am obviously on the way out.
Bill Cushing teaches English at East Los Angeles and Mt. San Antonio colleges. His work has been published in various literary journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The San Juan Star and the Florida Times-Union. In 2017, Bill was named as one of the Top Ten Poets of L.A., and, in 2018, Spectrum Publishing named him as one of the “ten poets to watch” in Los Angeles. When not teaching or writing, Bill facilitates a writing workshop in Eagle Rock, California.
Jemma Jose is a freelance digital artist, who is passionate about bringing stories to life through drawing and animation. You can follow Jemma’s work here: @that gorillagirl. Contact her at email@example.com