In Other Words

Pas­trami on Rye: An Over­stuffed His­tory of the Jewish Deli by Ted Merwin

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If you’ve ever noshed, nib­bled, or munched on that di­vine de­light known as del­i­catessen, this well­re­searched and in­ter­est­ing book will leave you with a good taste in your men­tal mouth. Packed with in­for­ma­tion about how New York Jewish del­i­catessen food and the stores that sold it were in­ter­wo­ven with Amer­i­can Jewish cul­ture, up­ward mo­bil­ity, and so­cial as­pi­ra­tions — and what hap­pened when sec­u­lar­ism en­tered Amer­i­can Jewish life through other food­ways — it is a very ful­fill­ing read. Af­ter you pe­ruse a chap­ter or two, you’ll long for a nice, big, thick pas­trami sand­wich on seeded rye, ac­com­pa­nied by a glass of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray or per­haps a cream soda. Don’t for­get the mus­tard.

If you’re not in a specif­i­cally pas­trami mood, don’t worry. As Merwin shows, there was (and is) much more un­der glass in a typ­i­cal del­i­catessen to gaze on and graze upon. Salami, bologna, roast beef, roast chicken. White­fish, lox, her­ring, tuna fish salad. Crunchy pick­les, rel­ishes, coleslaw, sauer­kraut. Knishes, bagels, bialys, chal­lah. Cheese­cake of melt­ing sweet­ness. Se­duc­tive noo­dle kugel. And so it went, and on it goes.

Merwin i s as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion and Ju­daic Stud­ies at Dick­in­son Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia. He is found­ing di­rec­tor there of the Mil­ton B. As­bell Cen­ter for Jewish Life, and a reg­u­lar writer and com­men­ta­tor on Jewish cul­ture. He is also, clearly, a con­nois­seur of del­i­catessen — a win­ning com­bi­na­tion, es­pe­cially when it comes to pre­sent­ing many facts in such a tasty way that they go down as warmly as good chicken soup.

For ex­am­ple, there’s the word it­self. Merwin ex­plains, “The very word del­i­catessen de­rives orig­i­nally from the Latin word

del­i­ca­tus, mean­ing ‘ dainty, ten­der, charm­ing, en­tic­ing, al­lur­ing, and volup­tuous.’ … It en­tered me­dieval French as

del­i­cat, mean­ing ‘ fine,’ and by the Re­nais­sance mor­phed into

del­i­cates se, sig­ni­fy­ing a fine food or del­i­cacy. It was picked up as del­i­catezza in Ital­ian and De­likatesse in Ger­man, both also de­not­ing an un­usual and highly prized food. It en­tered English only in the late 1880s, with the in­flux of Ger­mans into the United States, and

then only in the plu­ral form, del­i­catessen.”

Main­tain­ing food pu­rity for re­li­gious as well as health rea­sons was a ma­jor con­cern of the kosher del­i­catessen. Not that it was easy go­ing. “Since kosher meat was more dif­fi­cult to ob­tain and al­ways com­manded a higher price than nonkosher ( treyf, in Yid­dish) meat, meat com­pa­nies and delis of­ten misled their cus­tomers by switch­ing the two. … In 1925, a study by the state found that fully 40 per­cent of meat sold as kosher in New York City was ac­tu­ally treyf.”

Other in­ter­est­ing facts in­clude that when del­i­catessens (th­ese of­ten nonkosher) moved into the New York the­ater district, the im­mense menus fea­tured lit­er­ally hun­dreds of items. Lindy’s, named af­ter founder Leo Lin­de­mann, be­came fa­mous un­der the ap­pel­la­tion of Mindy’s thanks to writer and news­pa­per man Da­mon Run­yon, whose sto­ries of Broad­way babes and ban­dits in­spired the hit mu­si­cal

Guys and Dolls. And, in the post-World War I years and on into the ’30s, Merwin ex­plains that many Jews “for whom liv­ing in Amer­ica largely meant eat­ing what other Amer­i­cans ate,” found a com­pro­mise with di­etary laws: “They kept kosher at home but re­laxed their stan­dards when they ate out, thus mak­ing a dis­tinc­tion be­tween their pri­vate and pub­lic lives.”

One of the most in­trigu­ing sec­tions of the book is“The‘ New York’ Jewish Del­i­catessen, out­side New York,” in the chap­ter “Send a Salami.” (In case you’re won­der­ing, the chap­ter ti­tle refers to a World War II slo­gan to send your boy fight­ing over­seas some­thing to re­mind him of home — in this case, a nice, well-pre­served salami from the lo­cal deli.) In it, Merwin sur­veys how the del­i­catessen store spread across the country, as af­ter World War II, Jews be­gan to mi­grate away from New York City. From Mi­ami to Los An­ge­les — with, ad­mit­tedly, a paucity of delis out­side the ma­jor cities in the cen­tral part of the country — the phys­i­cal store and the se­cu­rity and sat­is­fac­tion it pro­jected be­came part of gen­eral Amer­i­can food­ways. As Merwin notes, Or­son Welles even once stated, “There could be no pic­ture mak­ing with­out pas­trami.”

Pas­trami on Rye won a 2015 Na­tional Jewish Book Award, pre­sented by the Jewish Book Coun­cil. It’s not hard to see why. This is an en­ter­tain­ing work of merit, writ­ten in a flu­ent style that re­calls Calvin Trillin at his foodie best and Lud­wig Bemel­mans at his most ob­ser­vant. So go get some deli take­out, tie on your bib, and have at it with both hands. You’ll be glad you did. — Craig A. Smith

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