Thursday, April 25, 2024

Flashback 1995: Landmark Deli Serves Its Last Meals

I was never an admirer of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, but that can be chalked up to ignorance. Every time I went was to write about something else — its opening ceremonies, or police cadet training, or one of the museum founders. My complaint was that they had watered down the horror of the 20th century into a lesson for 5th graders about bullying. 
     That wasn't fair, as I learned when I actually went through the place, and for the strangest reason. My wife had never gone at all, but they had a special exhibit about Jewish delis. Who doesn't love a Jewish deli? She wanted to see it. 
     The show seemed an odd fit, the sort of thing I'd criticize without actually experiencing. But it got us there a few weekends ago, the day before the show closed. 
     We saw the deli show first, which was smart. It was well done, adroitly tying the rise of the deli to Jewish immigration, and linking specific Chicago delis, like Kaufman's, to Jewish refugees arriving here immediately after the Holocaust. 
    Then we saw the museum itself. Not the full nine-ring plunge into Dantean hell like the one in Washington. But a thoughtful representation, well worth the, oh, three hours we spent there. The most sober aspect is how current the 1930s feel today.
     In the deli exhibit, I noticed a sign for Nate's, which sparked a memory. I visited before they closed it down, and bought a jar of herring from the last batch. This is my brief report.     

     The smell of dill pickles, the rhythmic kathuck-kathuck of the corned beef slicing machine, fresh rye bread, the murky green jars of pickled tomatoes and kosher dills and, above all, the happy fluttering of human voices.
     "This is all you want, young man?" says Robert L. Williams, from behind the ancient counter. "You want some hot peppers? You said mustard? Why certainly you can. Thank you, sir."
     The smells, the sounds, the voices — all this will disappear when Nate's Delicatessen closes its doors forever today, after 74 years at 807 W. Maxwell.
     "It's going to be sad to walk out of here after 48 years," says Nathan Duncan, 64, who has worked at the deli since 1946, and owned it since 1972. "I've never had another job."
     The deli is a true anachronism — an artifact from the days when Maxwell Street was a sprawling Jewish ghetto. The Jews have moved away, but Nate's, and its hearty Jewish fare, has remained.
     As humble as the deli is — with its decrepit tin ceiling, hand-cut wooden floor rails and seating for, maybe, six — it has known its share of fame. Blues legends such as Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor have eaten there, as well as a range of celebrities from Red Skelton to Sen. Everett Dirksen. A scene from "The Blues Brothers" was filmed there.
     But Nate's isn't about fame. It isn't even about Jewish food. It's about people — meeting, talking, eating together.
     Duncan points to a bespectacled gentleman sitting by the stove.
     "Frank has been coming here since he was a little boy. He'd rather sleep in that chair than sleep at home."
     "It's a tremendous loss," says Frank Williams, 45. "This place is a relic. Politics was discussed here. It was a meeting place, people met here and talked."
     Unlike the old Maxwell Street Market, Nate's was not forced out. But Duncan realized it was just a matter of time. So he sold to the University of Illinois at Chicago, which plans to build a parking lot and an athletic field.
     Displaying a jar of pickled herring, Duncan says, "I just made my last batch. This is a Russian dish."
     He savors the irony.
     "A black guy making a Russian delicacy." He smiles. "I learned the recipe from the mother of the former owner. You know, the Jewish ladies, they tried to get the recipe out of me. They tried to con it out of me. But I never did tell them. They still don't know."
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 15, 1995


  1. I needed this today. Thank you.

  2. As long as we're sitting shivy for Jewish delis, let's give a shout out to one of the OG's. Sam and Hy's in Skokie was THE place to nosh and meet friends and kvetch (a Jewish national sport) back in the day.

    1. I grew up about six blocks from Sam and Hy's. My parents avoided it, as did I, because it wasn't known for its cleanliness. Years later, in the early 80s, I took my Norwegian girlfriend and future wife there, so she could get a good taste of Jewish cooking. She opened her menu, and out crawled a roach as big as a beetle...with a capital in VW Beetle. We walked, and we never went back.

      .My go-to-deli was always Ashkenaz, in East Rogers Park. After it burned down in the late 70s, it was The Bagel. Originally in Albany Park, on Kedzie, and later on Devon, near Thillens Stadium. And finally in Old Orchard. Baseball-sized matzoh balls, in soup, bowls the size of birdbaths.

  3. A few years ago I was working in DuPage County and went to Schmaltz's deli, great food and friendly people. I immediately felt comfortable there. Today's EGD led me to look up the meaning of Shayna punim. As the descendant of Irish Catholics the Yiddish words and phrases are to me unknown though when I looked it up I found many which I've heard many times like mensch and verklempt. I looked at a list and found many great words. One I really liked was kvell, taking pride in the accomplishments of others, like our children. A nice word.

  4. There was a great deli on the third floor of 5 S. Wabash I was made aware of when I first started working downtown in the late 1970s. It was a great place for a south suburban Polish kid to learn about Jewish food. The best corned beef and kreplach I’ve ever had. I wish I could remember the name of it, but we would always refer to it as “the third floor”, as in “I’m going to the third floor to grab a bagel. Do you want anything?” Oh! Their freshly made bagels!!! My memory still hold that aroma.

  5. Not Jewish but used to love the sandwiches in a Jewish deli in Naperville. But that closed down a few years ago. Some of these closings are due to changing tastes or diets.

  6. The world is a wild place. It changes so much. High quality deli's are few and far between. The good ones are worth their weight in gold.

  7. That's hwo I rember Nate's. A couple of steps down into the tiny shop, old timers sitting around, and mountains of corned beef. Maxwell and Halsted was fun. filthy and such a deal.

  8. I have a Jewish friend from the NYC area who loves the 11th Street Diner in Chicago. It is no accident that he relived many childhood memories, like Celery Soda, when going there. Food is one thing, but the flavors of one's past are another. How happy I was to see the word "verklempt" in your headline. Another Jewish friend used to use that word often to describe her speechless. She has since died, but the meaning of it lives on.

  9. I was driving somewhere with my pal, Jerry G. Bishop, and we had to pick up his mother and drop her off somewhere. To make conversation she asked me" So, do you go by Ashkenaz? (Her subtile way to ask if I was a member of the tribe, sadly no, I'm Goyish.)

    1. I don't know what "goyesh" means, but when I lived in Rogers Park, I loved Ashkenaz. Best cabbage borscht on the planet. That is where I first had chopped liver. I'll never forger it.

    2. It means "gentile" in a slightly derogatory way.

  10. Anybody go to Moon’s sandwich shop in what was/is still the hood? 16 s western. I think it’s more of a diner than a deli, but their corned beef sandwiches are supposed to be great and it’s been there awhile.

  11. Back in the mid 70’s when I drove a truck in Chicago every day I discovered Jerry’s on east Grand ave. Just stopped the truck on the side of the road and walked in. Good food and fast service. The owner directed traffic at the door and when you knew what you wanted he directed you to an open employee. I don’t know when it disappeared only I remember going by one day and it was gone. The only real deli I ever ate at.


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