Pas­tra­mi on Rye: An Over­stuffed His­to­ry of the Jew­ish Deli

  • Review
By – November 2, 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Ira Wolf­man is a writer and edi­tor with a deep inter­est in Jew­ish his­to­ry. He is the author of Jew­ish New York: Notable Neigh­bor­hoods, Mem­o­rable Moments (Uni­verse Books) and the own­er of POE Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a con­sult­ing firm that spe­cial­izes in edu­ca­tion­al publishing.

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