Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

NYU Press  2015


His memory of the madeleine, a delicate French pastry, moved Marcel Proust to write seven novels; Ted Merwin’s culinary recollections launched him on a literary undertaking, too. His endeavor, however, was provoked by pastrami.

In a labor of love that took ten years to complete, this associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College tells tales of tongue and corned beef, uncovers a roasted-meat debate in the Talmud, and offers a theory to explain Jewish waiters’ sarcastic shtick (they “made you feel at home by treating you with undisguised contempt”).

This author is not alone, of course. Recent love letters to delicatessen fare include nonfic­tion tomes Knish and The Brisket Book, the documentary film Deli Man, and David Sax’s pleadingly titled Save the Deli.

But Merwin, a columnist for the Jewish Week, is not just interested in nostalgia or rescuing restaurants. He is also seeking the meaning of this uniquely Jewish-American institution. Merwin traces an astonishing arc. In 1931, more than 1,500 kosher delicatessens dotted New York City. Today, fewer than 20 serve the five boroughs. The author reminds us that the deli’s Jewish roots are shallow: meat was a rarity in the shtetl, and restaurants were virtually non-existent. Only on Manhat­tan’s Lower East Side did Eastern European Jews discover the German delicatessen.

In 1888, the first recognizable (and still extant) Jewish deli, Katz’s, opened (under a different name). But first-generation American immigrants rarely ate in restaurants, so the deli’s heyday did not arrive till the 1920s, when it was fueled by the patronage of immigrants’ assimilating children. Hundreds of delis continued to exist into the 1950s, but they were losing appeal. By the ‘80s, decline had turned into near-disappearance.

Why did delicatessen go from favored food to occasional indulgence in barely three generations? A key piece of the author’s expla­nation is that delis were a way station on the road to affluence. “At a time when Jews were stereotyped as uncouth and uncivilized, it is significant that they created an unusual type of eatery, one that in some ways fulfilled the very ideas that other Americans had of them,” Merwin writes. “The deli was a place where they could eat with their hands, talk with their mouths full, fill their bellies, and enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company in a raucous and convivial setting.” Eventually, more afflu­ent Jews wanted more sophisticated cuisine and rarified dining rooms. They no longer needed the comfort of faux home cooking.

Merwin serves up numerous tasty tidbits, including photos of old-time delis; anecdotes about Al Jolson, Harpo Marx, and Orson Welles; and insights into the seductive power of pastrami (notably, a hilarious real-life tribute to Harry and Sally’s visit to the deli). The author also cites today’s small-scale deli renaissance, with serious chefs reimagining Ashkenazi food in creative ways.

So although it can be a little heavy on the research and occasionally repetitious, at the end of the meal, Pastrami on Rye proves entertaining, provocative, and—appropri­ately—food for thought. Photos, footnotes, bibliography, index.

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