Growing up as a child, I often heard my nana call her husband, Arn, a “putz.” They’ve since passed on, and my opportunity to stand back and absorb an ancient form of communication has dwindled—except for the times I make my way to a Jewish delicatessen. Only there, on rare occasions, will I overhear one of the most memorable yiddush phrases of my childhood casually tossed around in public: “Don’t be a putz” or, more familiarly, a prick.
Of course, the word putz doesn’t have a specific deli connotation, but you can find plenty of them couched in booths, angrily waving down a waiter, complaining that the fatty pastrami they ordered is…well…too fatty. Like the diner, the deli is bursting with shorthand and—in this case—yiddush slang, because it’s essentially the Jewish American version of a “quick service” restaurant, says David Sax, author of Save the Deli. “A bissel of this, a nosh of that—these terms define portion sizes in ways that small, medium, and large don’t, while imparting a cultural flavor.” Humor is an integral part of the operation, notes Ziggy Gruber, who runs Kenny & Ziggy’s in Houston, TX, and starred in the documentary, Deli Man. “Being shticky is part of delicatessen culture,” says Gruber, whose distinct brand of comedy evokes the Catskills circuit of the ’60s.
“There’s a deli language that’s become universal, regardless of geography” says Mile End and Blackseed owner Noah Bernamoff. And while it’s true that many Jewish delis pedal the NY Jewish expat tradition, there are plenty of regional differences—like in Bernamoff’s hometown of Montreal, where knowing to order “a 1/2 dozen black, and a 1/2 dozen white” will serve you well—that broaden the lexicon. A new, young generation of deli owners is not only updating the fundamentals of curing fish, but is also contributing to the glossary, borrowing Spanish phrases to describe the best parts of the pastrami (as is the case with DTLA’s Micah Wexler).
“Places like Mile End and Wexler’s not only embrace the nature of the slang, but come up with their own, out of necessity (communicating orders), but also imparting their own identity,” says Sax.
To parse out hard-to-pronounce words and tongue-and-cheek slang used behind the counter, we talked to a handful of major players—both young guns and old heads—to shower us with wisdom:
- Micah Wexler, chef/owner of Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles, CA
- Ziggy Gruber, co-owner of Kenny & Ziggy’s Deli in Houston, TX
- Noah Bernamoff, chef/owner at Mile End Deli, Blackseed in BK and NYC
- Jake Dell, co-owner of Katz’s in NYC
- Norm Langer, owner of Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles, CA
Refers to an order of poppyseed bagels in Montreal. “Can I get a dozen black.” That’s where the name “Blackseed” comes from.—Bernamoff
Slang for “ham,” so as to not offend Jewish customers.—Langer
Translates to “fucking great meat.” Used to describe the deckle meat of the brisket, fatty cut. “Gimme an OG solo carne chingon.”—Wexler
Short for cream cheese/tomato. I’ll ask for a CCTO on a sesame.—Bernamoff
Check the ice.
When a pretty girl walks in and you want to check her out, you scream, “Check the ice!” My grandfather taught me that one.—Gruber
The beef ends and debris that gather while slicing that we “chop” up to put in the Big Poppa sandwich. “Throw some more chop in there.”—Wexler
Collars and wings
The neck meat and side fin meat of the lox; usually a favorite of 90-year-olds.—Wexler
Cott Black Cherry
A traditional soda pairing at a deli in Montreal. What Dr. Brown’s cream soda is to U.S. delis, Cott Black cherry is to Montreal delis.—Bernamoff
Cut me a piece of silk.
Refers to thick butcher paper if a sandwich needs to be wrapped well. Instead of regular wax paper, I’d say, cut me a piece of silk.—Gruber
People who think that anything pertaining to a deli must pass their judgement first. Usually a Jewish male, at least 60, thinks he knows everything about delis and is not afraid to share his opinion. Also thinks everything good comes from New York.—Wexler
Photo: Yelp/Yosa Y.
A sandwich topped with coleslaw and slathered with Russian dressing.—Gruber
Chocolate syrup, milk, and selzter. Think carbonated chocolate milk.—Dell
Eat in good health.—Dell
A term used in Montreal to refer to smoked meat. “I’ll have a fatty with mustard.”—Bernamoff
A large or big eater.—Langer
Give me one done.
Refers to an order of sour pickles.—Gruber
Means “nothing” in yiddush. Refers to an unadorned sandwich. “You want anything on that pastrami? No gornish.”—Gruber
Crispy chicken skin bits that are a byproduct from making schmaltz. You get chicken skins, render them on a raised rack, and what collects underneath is the schmaltz. The skin dries and starts to crisp.—Bernamoff
Young jewish kids opening up artisanal delis.—Gruber
A small, oily fish that’s typically pickled. Very fishy flavor profile with an elastic type of texture.—Bernamoff
Refers to fatty pastrami. “People get grossed out by the idea that it’s fatty, but it’s an integral part of the meal.”—Dell
Slang for matzo balls.—Langer
At Sammy’s Roumanina, karnatzel is basically a garlicky beef patty that’s grilled and served like kibbe. In Montreal, I grew up eating it smoked, in a tiny casing that’s reminiscent of Slim Jim. When you walk into the delis in Montreal, you’ll see Karmatzel hanging in the window. You can order it fresh or dry. At Schwartz’s you can order it to-go, by the pound. When it comes to the table, it looks sort of depressing just on rye bread. But it’s so fucking good.”—Bernamoff
More or less translates to “guts.” Also referred to as stuffed derma. Essentially thanksgiving stuffing put into cow intestines. Today most people use plastic instead of intestinal lining.—Dell
A garlicky sausage.—Dell
A short, fat hot dog.—Dell
A dumpling, boiled or fried, with a variety of fillings. Found often in chicken soup.—Bernamoff
Shorthand for gravlax, which is cured fish. There is no smoke added, or any cooking process involved. People mistakenly refer to every form of smoked salmon as lox.—Bernamoff
Someone who requests to dress a sandwich in a ridiculous way that we refuse to do, i.e., pastrami with cream cheese.—Wexler
Can be a noun or verb. A snack or little bite, a treat to hold you over. Stuckel would fall under the nosh section.—Dell
Made from fatteri deckle brisket, cooked slowly over smoke.—Bernamoff
Another name for pastrami. When you’re busy behind the counter, pastrami can sound like salami.—Gruber
A troublemaker. Someone who orders a fatty sammy, and says it’s too fatty, or order a lean sandwich and says it’s too dry and complains about it. Well, it’s what you ordered.—Bernamoff
Refers to meat that’s grilled and served with sauerkraut.—Langer
Refers to fat, specifically chicken that’s been rendered and, in some cases, infused with charred onions. You cook chicken livers in schmaltz in preparation for chopped liver. Some people say the fat that collects on top of chicken soup after it cools down is also considered schmaltz, although it’s not straight rendered.—Bernamoff
A multi-purpose word. Can mean “to spread” cream cheese on a bagel or liver on a sandwich. Colloquially, we’d use it while watching hockey games. When a player blows by a defenseman and scores, we’d say that guy got schmeared!—Bernamoff
Unlike corned beef and pastrami, which are made from two different parts of the brisket, smoked meat is made from whole brisket, and the spice blend is a bit more aromatic. Pastrami has black pepper and coriander, while smoked meat includes clove and fennel seed. Traditionally it is dry-cured, whereas pastrami and corned beef are brined in a liquid-based solution. Not to be confused with the Boar’s Head pastrami, which is prepared in a humidity-controlled oven, and whose bark is food coloring.—Bernamoff
If you go to Schwartz’s in Montreal and order speck, they will give you the grizzled edges of the brisket, which is essentially fat covered in spices. Speck, otherwise, means the cured and smoked pork shoulder product from Italy. It’s a bizarre term and I have no idea about its origins.—Bernamoff
Translates into a small piece or taste, like a piece of knobblewurst thrown on rye.—Dell
Old cookies and danishes that are mashed, mixed with almond paste, and then layered on a round danish pastry. You’ll see a pinwheel-looking pattern.—Gruber
Yiddush word for pergoi. They’re usually boiled and then pan-fried with onions. It has a gummy texture on the outside, and the filling is pureed.—Bernamoff
Refers to an order of sesame bagels in Montreal.—Bernamoff
Refers to frankfurters dressed with mustard and sauerkruat. “I’ll have one with.” If the deli is busy, and you’re selling hot dog, it takes to long to keep repeating “mustard with sauerkraut.”—Gruber
Someone who loves to tell you stories about the past, and will probably be a bit persnickety about things. “Oh, I like the sandwich, but there’s just a bit too much liver.” Or, “the soup was good, but just salty.” Of course, the bowl is empty and the sandwich is gone. They’re never 100% satisfied, but are happy enough to finish the plate and lick it clean. They’re in a league of their own.—Bernamoff
*Overheard while on the phone with Ziggy Gruber: “What did we do without smartphones? If I could turn back time I’d like it to be 1980. We still had a bit of technology, but we weren’t stupid.”