In the history of American Jewry, there are few institutions more revered—synagogues included—than the humble deli. That’s a bold statement to make on no less hallowed ground than the Upper East Side’s 92nd Street Y, but Ted Merwin has both the research and anecdotal evidence to back it up. As it turns out, the deli isn’t just the origin site of classic American Jewish food; its history also mirrors that of its community—from its immigrant beginnings, to later efforts to reimagine its identity in the 21st century.
A professor of religion and Judaic studies at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle College, Merwin lectured in front of a crowd last Thursday to promote his latest book, Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. (He’s also the author of In Their Own Image, a history of Jews in the popular culture of the American Jazz Age.) Like most of his audience, however, Merwin also has plenty of experience with the Jewish deli, opening the talk with a detailed account of his family’s standing order from their Great Neck, Long Island local: one pound of roast beef; one pound of turkey; twelve slices of rye bread; and a container of Heinz vegetarian baked beans.
Merwin’s interest in the subject didn’t turn into an academic pursuit until a few decades later, when his research on Jewish cultural history in the 1920s and 1930s happened to coincide perfectly with the deli’s initial rise in popularity. Merwin discovered that contrary to their reputation as the signature small businesses of a fledgling immigrant group, delis actually found their first-wave of founders and customers in the second generation of American Jews: those whose parents were immigrants, but had actually been born and raised in the States. At the high-water mark of Jewish immigration in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Lower East Side—whose Jewish occupants numbered in the hundreds of thousands—supported just ten delis; when the businesses began to proliferate in earnest, they began to do so in areas where the second generation clustered after they left the tenements for places like Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx.
“By the 1970s, an ad for Coca-Cola displayed a pastrami sandwich next to the soft drink, demonstrating the extent to which a once-niche food had come to stand for all-American eating habits.”
This makes perfect sense when one considers the economics required to sustain a business that is ultimately a gourmet foods store. Contrary to popular belief that delicatessen is partially derived from essen, the German word for “to eat,” the term actually comes from the Latin adjective “delicatus,” for “luxurious.” To poor immigrants with little disposable income, the sweets and cured meats that delis would later offer in bulk were considered a special treat. In the Yiddish song “Rumania, Rumania,” composed by immigrant Aaron Lebedeff in 1920, now-commonplace foods like pastrami are referred to in the diminutive, points out Merwin, indicating that in the old country, they were only eaten in small quantities, if they were eaten at all.
The prosperity to indulge more frequently, and in larger quantities, came after World War I. It’s impossible, however, to track exactly when the first Jewish deli opened its doors; Merwin posits that it might have been a converted kosher butcher shop, or a German-style gourmet food store that a Jewish-German entrepreneur simply translated to his new country. Either way, it was likely on the Lower East Side, and the still-booming Katz’s Delicatessen was certainly one of the first. By the middle of the century, however, the deli had developed into an institution, with famous examples like Reuben’s Restaurant, which featured famously abrasive waiters dressed as famed Jewish entertainers like Eddie Cantor or Al Jolson; the Stage Deli, where my own great-grandfather once worked the meat slicer; and the Second Avenue Deli, which opened its doors in 1954.
“Contrary to popular belief that delicatessen is partially derived from essen, the German word for “to eat,” the term actually comes from the Latin adjective ‘delicatus,’ for ‘luxurious.'”
Eventually, the deli migrated into mainstream culture, even as the post-World War II availability of traditional deli foods in supermarkets—where foods that were preserved through pre-freezing methods like curing were ironically available in the frozen-foods section—jeopardized brick-and-mortar delis themselves. By the 1970s, an ad for Coca-Cola displayed a pastrami sandwich next to the soft drink, demonstrating the extent to which a once-niche food had come to stand for all-American eating habits. That same decade, Chicago deli proprietor Jerry Meyers earned a short documentary by filmmaker Tom Palazzolo depicting his infamously adversarial relationship with his customers. (To Meyers, the ends justified the means; he had a rule that anyone who remained in his store for more than five minutes could eat for free, and told Palazzolo “I’ve never given anything away yet.”)
Though the deli isn’t as widespread now as it was at its peak, it lives on in popular culture. Merwin concluded his lecture by playing one of the most iconic film scenes in recent memory, and certainly the most famous one to take place in a deli: the “I’ll have what she’s having” face-off from When Harry Met Sally. “Would this scene work in a Chinese restaurant?” Merwin asked. “There’s something about those sausages hanging in the window…”
Faked orgasms aside, the deli, like so many retro business models, has also enjoyed a mini-renaissance of late. Mostly non-kosher, Jewish-owned entrepreneurial efforts like Russ & Daughters Cafe in New York, Wexler’s Deli in L.A., and DGS Delicatessen in Washington, D.C. have reintroduced the joys of lox and rye toast to a new generation of diners—who now typically have to endure two-hour brunch lines to get them. Yet despite new obstacles to connect with millenials and shore up their food ethics, Jewish delis have proven surprisingly resilient as an American instituion; it helps, of course, when your showstopper is a pastrami sandwich. Right, George?