Ill Bill is holding court at a table inside Essen NY Deli in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, discussing the plight of kosher delis in New York City. Dressed in a red Polo rugby and fitted NYC cap, the Brooklyn-raised rapper dissects a plate of kishka smothered in gelatinous gravy while lamenting how the neighborhood food spots he was raised on are now “going the same way as how people complain about the old New York and everything disappearing.”
Nursing a can of Dr. Brown's Black Cherry soda, Bill explains in his Brooklyn brogue, “In Manhattan you've got that whole Lower East Side neighborhood, where tourists go to Katz's, and at one point there was also a Rivington Deli and an Essex Deli. Each street had a deli named after the street and it was not a big deal. But now they're gone."
Bill's fears aren't unfounded. In Save the Deli, David Sax explores the manifold threats to the time-honored culinary institution—rising beef prices, health-conscious agendas, a consumer base that is largely disappearing. Those same forces affect Ill Bill's primary concern: local legit kosher spots—as opposed to “kosher-style” places that practice a lower standard of religiously-mandated preparation—which were part of his cultural fabric growing up in Canarsie in the ‘80s.
"Delis were a big part of my upbringing in Brooklyn but I wouldn't say it's something we thought about," says Bill. "Now it's fucked up that we have to think about it and do these kinds of stories because that means people need to be told about this as opposed to just knowing about it."
Before paying dues on the hip-hop scene and embarking on a career that saw him become a member of the incendiary indie rap heroes Non Phixion and launching the La Coka Nostra movement, Bill’s youth was fueled by hot dogs and knishes picked up from now-extinct outlets like Joe's South Shore Deli and Grabstein's. Linking the kosher restaurant scene to the homestead, family meals prepared by his grandmother mirrored the menus of the neighborhood kosher deli.
Essen comes off as a throwback to those times. Inside the spot, framed hand-written letters from local rabbis complimenting the restaurant’s sandwiches are displayed on the walls, while a giant painted mural depicting the old Lower East Side Jewish scene faces the deli counter. "It was a big part of my upbringing in Brooklyn but I wouldn't say it's something we thought about," says Bill. "Now it's fucked up that we have to think about it and do these kinds of stories because that means people need to be told about this as opposed to just knowing about it, which is how it used to be."
As Bill enthusiastically chows down in one of the city’s last bastions of that way of life, he drops science on the importance of kosher Jewish delis in New York’s cultural history, his complicated relationship with eating tongue, and why he'll cosign a flagel but never a cragel.