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CHRONICLING THE NEW YORK JEWISH DELICATESSEN
by Mikhail Horowitz
from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, by Ted Merwin. New York University Press, 2015, 245 pages.
IN THE MID-1980s, I worked for a daily paper in the Hudson Valley with an editorial staff that sported many Wisconsinites, fresh out of journalism school. None had ever been to New York City, so I decided to give several of them a tour, arranging for overnight accommodations at my parents’ apartment in Borough Park. We visited an unreconstructed beatnik pad; took a stroll through a Bobover khasidic neighborhood, where my charges gaped at the sukkahs on the fire-escapes; rode the F train to Manhattan; and for lunch we went to Katz’s, the iconic Jewish delicatessen on East Houston Street.
At Katz’s, two things in particular amazed these young Midwesterners: the fact that the Litvak counterman had a screaming fight with one of the Sephardic busboys and that no one in the restaurant except them took any notice of it; and the sheer size of the pastrami sandwiches placed in front of them. Not a one of my Wisconsinites was able to finish their stunningly huge sandwich, but as they took their first nibbles the look on each face was one of pure, unadulterated joy. Their palates, as far as Jewish cuisine was concerned, had happily shed their virginity.
Here is Ted Merwin, the author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, on the consummate sensuality, the almost obscene pleasure, of eating a gargantuan sandwich of hot, red, moist meat, redolent of smoke and slathered with spicy mustard: “You opened wide and took a big, cavernous bite. The meat didn’t melt in your mouth — it crumbled into it, imploding into it, your teeth plowing through the fat and muscle, your taste buds slapping again and again into the sheer rosiness of it, bursting into a long, drawn-out, happy song.” The culinary orgasm he describes is not merely a matter of his own subjective experience: Merwin’s extensive research on all things deli leads him to conclude that the classic New York deli pastrami sandwich “became the ultimate symbol of carnal desire,” at least to New Yorkers.
Quoting the food writer Arthur Schwartz, Merwin notes that the Yiddish word for “overstuffed” is ongeshtupt — “the meat is crammed between the bread in a crude, sensual way that recalls the act of copulation.” Such salacious associations are borne out by the etymology of the word “delicatessen” itself, which the author traces to the Latin delicatus —“dainty, tender, charming, enticing, alluring, and voluptuous.”
Food is always about more than just food. In the case of delicatessen, or deli — the words refer to both the store or the eatery and the type of delicacy item sold or served there — it’s about nothing less than the embodiment of the entire Jewish experience in the goldene medine, from first-generation Eastern European immigrants to their second- and third-generation descendants, assimilated and acculturated but still needing to cling to a vestige of their Jewish heritage. Throughout most of the 20th century, the neighborhood deli, as Merwin amply demonstrates, was a convivial meeting place for Jews of all economic and ideological persuasions, a kind of “secular synagogue” in which politics, philosophy, sports, business, and what-have-you could be discussed in a friendly setting over pickled meat, potato knishes, and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic. “In the kosher delicatessen,” Merwin writes, “the freethinker (atheist) and the frum (observant) Jew could literally break bread . . . together, as could the top-hatted capitalist and the leather-capped socialist.”
THE DELI WAS ALSO a symbol of upward mobility (shtetl dwellers did not eat very much meat), as well as a symbol of stubborn resistance to the homogenizing forces of goyish America, which, early on, in the form of home economists working in the settlement houses, sought to persuade Jewish housewives to eschew their rich ethnic fare in favor of bland, odorless, lily-white “American” food. (I remember once offering a Protestant girlfriend a piece of pickled herring; I will never forget her facial contortions as she tried to choke it down.) Perhaps most important, the deli was a primary conduit of Jewish influence on American culture, effecting changes in American life (not excluding American Jewish life) that were as varied and layered as the offerings in a typical menu from Reuben’s or Lindy’s or any of the other legendary delis of yesteryear.
The most emblematic of those menu offerings was the one that lends its title to Merwin’s book. Hot, fatty slabs of spicy pastrami were a special treat for me as a kid, reserved for those few times a year when my father took us out to the neighborhood deli on Brooklyn’s New Utrecht Avenue. But what did I know from pastrami, other than it was indescribably yummy? I could not have told you what animal it came from (cows, mostly) or which part of that animal (the plate cut, from the belly of the cow), or what gave it its indelibly delicious taste (brining, drying, seasoning with spices and herbs, smoking, and steaming). I did not know, as Merwin does, that pastrami originated in Turkey and took root in Romania via Turkish conquests; or that the Romanian word pastram, like its cousins in Russian, Turkish, and Armenian, means “pressed.” Generally, “pressed” meant preserving the meat by squeezing out its juices and hanging it up to dry. Turkish horsemen, however, had a more exotic method of preserving the meat, “inserting it in the sides of their saddles, where their legs would press against it as they rode; the meat was tenderized by the animal’s sweat.”
Ranging from the first delis in New York, which were owned and operated by non-Jewish German immigrants, to the first Jewish delis, which evolved from kosher butcher shops, and all the way up to the present-day explosion of global cuisine, which has altered the nation’s eating habits and helped, among other factors, to contribute to the slow decline of traditional delis, Merwin pretty much covers the whole shmeer. Making use of a catholic (you’ll pardon the expression) approach, he draws from etymology, sociology, psychology, gastronomy, economics, fiction, politics, religion, and even mysticism to illuminate his subject from every possible angle.
Occasionally, though, he seems to be trying just a little too hard. Concerning Allan Sherman’s 1962 comedy album My Son, the Folksinger, Merwin quotes this lyric: “Do not make a stingy sandwich/Pile the cold cuts high / Customers should see salami/Coming through the rye.” He then interprets it as Jewishness (the salami) forcing its way through the rye bread (the American mainstream) and “bringing Jewish culture to the fore.” By me, such over-analysis is a bit ongepotchket. (And personally, I have always thought of rye bread as being Jewish, too, but “coming through the Wonder Bread” would have killed the pun, not to mention the rhyme and the meter.)
Still, there is no doubt whatsoever that delis brought Jewish culture to the fore.
Jewish-American humor, in particular, could never have developed in all its subversive mishegos, its aggressive hilarity, its self-satirizing sharpness, without the institution of the deli. During the Jazz Age of the 1920s, Merwin writes, “No ethnic group was more involved and invested in popular culture than were the Jews, who provided the lion’s share of the creative talent, financial backing, and real estate for the entertainment business. And no New York eateries were more emblematic of show-business culture than were the theater-district delicatessens,” which were patronized by the stars and made celebrities of their colorful owners and bantering waiters.
The Broadway theater-district delis were not only a channel that fed Jewish humor into the mainstream, but also served as an incubator of that humor by providing a place where its great practitioners, who were meeting and eating in the delis after knocking them dead on stage, could shmooz with one another and hone their comedy chops. (Remember the Greek chorus of Jewish comedians ensconced at the Carnegie Delicatessen in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose?) The delis even enjoyed a heyday as primary subjects of Jewish humor. “It was almost de rigueur for comedy sketches and scenes that centered on Jewish life to take place in delicatessens,” Merwin writes, largely because delis were the place where Jews who were attempting to become less Jewish and more American, but without completely losing their Jewishness, could connect with each other to laugh, kvetch, and be mutually supportive.
THE GOLDEN AGE of the kosher deli in New York was during the Great Depression, when, as Merwin recounts, there were more than a thousand such establishments in the city, supported by “6,500 kosher butchers, 1,000 kosher slaughterhouses for poultry, 575 kosher meat restaurants, and 150 dairy restaurants.” Throw in the nonkosher and non-Jewish delis, and the number tops 2,300. But it was also the era in which more and more American Jews were adapting themselves to nonkosher fare, or to convoluted compromises in their eating habits. We are told that Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, “sanctioned the practice of keeping kosher at home but eating out in nonkosher restaurants as a way of balancing Jewish particularity with the need to live in the larger society.” We are also enlightened as to the culinary proclivities of Sid Levine, who so frequently styled himself a “gastronomical” Jew that his son, the sociologist Harry Levine, assumed it was another denomination of Judaism.
If you came of age when I did, in the Brooklyn of the late 1950s and early 1960s, you no doubt bemoan, whenever you get the hankering for a nice, thick, corned beef sandwich oozing with mustard and sloppy with sauerkraut, the relative scarcity — indeed, in many cities and suburbs, the total absence — of traditional Jewish delis in the Third Millennium. The decline is attributable to many factors: the rise in real-estate prices, which have squeezed out all eateries except for mega-chain stores and fast-food establishments; the recent trend toward healthier diets, along with the easy availability of once-exotic international cuisine (the owner of one deli told Merwin that “younger people have lost the taste for deli — they eat sushi instead”); the desire, stoked over the years by college educations, of many children of deli owners to find work less grueling than the operating of a restaurant; and, in the case of kosher delis, the steadily decreasing number of American Jews who keep kosher (and, for those Orthodox Jews who do, the steadily increasing strictures of glatt kosher purity).
Swimming with the current, many delicatessens now offer expanded menus, featuring such culinary innovations as pickled bluefish (instead of herring), kosher hot dogs in Chinese egg-roll wrappers, and “deconstructed” babka, in their attempt to attract a younger, hipper clientele. In any event, “the deli no longer serves as a central gathering place for the Jewish community,” Merwin writes. Rather, it “functions as a kind of museum, a place where the past — or some concept of the past — can be exhibited and consumed.”
I felt this very strongly the last time I visited a “traditional” deli, on Brooklyn’s Avenue U. Peering through the glass counter, I had the odd feeling that I was gazing into a vitrine in a museum of Jewish history, where the pudgy cylinders of salami and the vats of pickles and coleslaw were nestled side-by-side with medieval mezuzot, Polish Passover hagodes antedating the Holocaust, and rare old 78-rpm recordings of songs and monologues by stars of the Yiddish theater. They were no longer comestibles, but emblems of a lost world, a world in which stand-up comics traded barbs in Yiddish with the likes of Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky, in which grizzled waiters with maximal khutspe would dip a stubby finger into your chicken soup if you complained that it was not hot enough, and in which your childhood friends, not seen or heard from in half a century, were once again shlumped around a formica table devouring Nathan’s hot dogs, while listening on transistor radios to Sandy Koufax shutting out the Giants.
But such nostalgic divagations, Merwin reminds us, are not necessarily passive. Quoting the sociologist Fred Davis, he writes that nostalgia is “one of the means . . . we employ in the never-ending work of constructing, maintaining, and reconstructing our identities.”
Or as my personal rebbe, William Blake, might have put it, regarding the reconstructed identity of so many American Jews, the road of excess — i.e., indulgence in overstuffed pastrami sandwiches — has led to the wisdom, harsh though it be, of eating organic granola, kale salads, and quinoa.
Mikhail Horowitz, our contributing writer, recently knocked them dead at our Sholem Aleichem Variety Show and has been in hiding ever since. His works include Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978), and two CDs and a DVD with Gilles Malkine: Live, Jive & Over 45 (2000), Poor, On Tour, & Over 54 (2007), and Too Small to Fail (2011).