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