The Jew­ish Deli: An Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Cho­sen Food

  • Review
By – July 7, 2023

The past fif­teen years have been a boon for cook­books, mem­oirs, and his­to­ries about Ashke­nazi Jew­ish food whose pages may as well be drip­ping in the schmaltz and pick­le juice they describe. If you’re inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of bagels, bialys, and appe­tiz­ing, or the tra­jec­to­ry of delis from Hous­ton Street in NYC to Hous­ton, Texas, these books will answer many of your ques­tions about Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­fort food: the pas­tra­mi, smoked salmon, bagels, and kugels that nour­ished twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish Amer­i­can pop cul­ture and communities. 

In The Jew­ish Deli, author and illus­tra­tor Ben Nadler leans on these books as he ele­vates Jew­ish deli, appe­tiz­ing, and baked goods into a delight­ful graph­ic nov­el. This book is 256 pages of joy, replete with Alaskan king salmon wear­ing crowns and an adorable car­toon parve rugelach cozi­ly sand­wiched between its bud­dies, a milk jug in Crocs and a chick­en drum­stick with plaid socks. The charm­ing anthro­po­mor­phic pas­tries and Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters that Nadler cre­ates make this among the cutest books you will ever read.

Nadler weaves a cur­so­ry, inter­pre­tive Jew­ish his­to­ry into the gen­e­sis and evo­lu­tion of these foods. In the begin­ning, before Jews were pick­ling briskets on the Low­er East Side, there were thou­sands of years in which exiled Dias­po­ra Jews adapt­ed and adopt­ed local foods to fit their Jew­ish cus­toms. At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in Amer­i­ca, these foods came into their own with the insti­tu­tions we know today as appe­tiz­ing (pur­vey­ors of cured, pick­led, and smoked fish), deli (which sold corned beef, pas­tra­mi, tongue, and many oth­er meats that made the per­fect union with rye bread and mus­tard), and Jew­ish bakeries.

Nadler goes beyond the gen­er­al, shar­ing insights from his vis­its to some of the most ver­i­ta­ble Jew­ish Ashke­nazi food pur­vey­ors of the twen­ty-first (and ear­ly twen­ti­eth) cen­tu­ry. These expe­ri­ences are then report­ed in whim­si­cal play-by-plays that illus­trate each of the steps in cur­ing corned beef, fill­ing a knish, and smok­ing salmon. He cel­e­brates dark rye bread, the unsung mas­cot of Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­grants,” and reveals black-and-white cook­ies’ true ori­gin. This won­der­ful book will sure­ly appeal to any­one who is hun­gry to learn more about the his­to­ry of Ashke­nazi com­fort food, and it will serve as a great com­ple­ment to those afore­men­tioned his­to­ries and cookbooks.

Avery Robin­son is a Jew­ish non­prof­it pro­fes­sion­al liv­ing in Brook­lyn. In his spare time, he free­lances as an edi­tor, culi­nary his­to­ri­an, cofounder of the cli­mate change non­prof­it Rye Revival, and man­ag­er of Black Roost­er Foods. His writ­ings have appeared in Mar­gin­a­lia Review of BooksJerusalem PostTablet­Mag, and The For­ward.

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