NEW YORK » Short on dismal news? Have a look at this notice, taped to the counter at the Yankee Tavern on 161st Street in the Bronx.
"Due to the increased price of pastrami," it began, unpromisingly, "we at the Yankee Tavern apologize for the increase in prices for the pastrami items."
Pastrami is in crisis.
"I contemplated taking it off the menus," Joe Bastone, owner of the tavern, said. "I came very close to doing it. I decided to try passing it on."
Last year, the average price of brisket – an embryonic form of pastrami – increased 47 percent over 2013. This year it is up 14 percent, according to Gary Morrison, who follows beef prices for Urner Barry, a food trade publisher.
In the Bronx, where a pastrami sandwich could have been the coat of arms in its days as a duchy of Jewish gastronomy, the hardy survivors say the centerpiece of their menus is being battered.
"Our suppliers are killing us, so we raised prices about eight months ago," said Art Rabin, manager of Liebman’s Kosher Delicatessen on West 235th Street. "Every few months, we get a letter that the price is going up.
"We’re not in Manhattan – there’s a ceiling to what people will pay. In Manhattan, people expect to get whacked for a sandwich."
What is behind this? "Drought has put cattle inventory at its lowest level in 60 years," Morrison said.
Meanwhile, brisket is not just for Passover anymore. Arby’s created a 13-hour video commercial last year that showed, in real time, the smoking of its brisket. Brisket is a basis for barbecue. Buying cooked brisket or ribs by the pound, and eating it off butcher paper, has become a staple at some celebrated restaurants in renaissance Brooklyn: dive chic.
Not that being cool confers protection against higher costs.
"Brisket prices have gone up almost 40 percent or more since I opened in 2013," Billy Durney, the owner of Hometown Bar-B-Que in Red Hook, said. "I think we increased prices a dollar a pound. We put some other products on the menu that are not loss leaders. For us, brisket and beef are what people come to Hometown for. We can’t take it off the menu."
But back to the beleaguered pastrami.
It began as the food of poor people in a new land. The German and Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States in the 19th century made a delightful discovery.
"Beef was more available in America than in any place Jews had ever lived," Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, wrote in a 2007 article, "Pastrami Land, the Jewish Deli in New York City," for the quarterly journal Contexts. "In America, the Jews became the people of the brisket."
A long, tough cut from the breast, marbled with fat, brisket requires slow cooking. Corned beef, which is brisket that has been pickled, was already widely available in the United States. The new immigrants elaborated on it, smoking and spicing the corned beef with techniques used in southeastern Europe to preserve mutton and pork, according to Levine.
Their creation was called pastrami.
"In the 1870s or 1880s, immigrant Jews really did create pastrami in New York City," he wrote.
They also simultaneously introduced a series of permanent disputes in New York as to which was the best and the most authentic, which bread it should be served on, what kind of soda to drink with it, where the meat was piled highest, machine-sliced versus hand-sliced, and so on. In 1979, Mimi Sheraton of The New York Times collected 104 pastrami and corned beef sandwiches to conduct a taste test.
To this day, no self-respecting pastrami slinger will concede to cutting corners by even a millimeter. And they have all apparently been in the business since birth or close to it as if they, too, were pickled and steamed in lore.
Bastone, 60, noted that he started working for his father at the Yankee Tavern when he was 11. His supplier has recently raised pastrami prices from about $5 a pound to more than $9, he said. He has started charging $12.95 for a sandwich, an increase of $3. "I could keep buying a lower quality for $5, but I won’t do that," he said.
You could practically hear the scoffing all the way from 231st Street in Kingsbridge of Fredy Loeser, who has been in business at Loeser’s since 1961, and has the plaques on the wall to go with it.
"Yankee Tavern is not kosher!" Loeser said.
Not that anyone said it was.
"I shouldn’t brag," Loeser said.
Oh, go ahead.
"We treat the pastrami like you would treat your best girlfriend," he said.
Hmm. By comparison, how does Yankee Tavern handle its pastrami?
"You have to steam it for a few hours," Bastone said.
That may not be the perfect treatment for everyone’s best girlfriend. But it seems to make the pastrami happy.
Jim Dwyer, New York Times