Autobiography of a Delicatessen—Katz’s
Photographs by Baldomero Fernanadez
Text by Jake Dell
Bauer & Dean, 2013
383 pages, $39.95
This autobiography is a wonderful photo album of a New York City landmark; plus a few dozen pages of text covering the famous deli’s beginnings and the various twists of ownership and management over five generations dating back to 1888 (125 years ago!). As is the case with Russ and Daughters (see next review), there was a time when there was a Jewish delicatessen on every block of the Lower- East Side and competition was fierce—but few survived the Jewish exodus from the neighborhood after World War II . Katz’s is famous for their “Send a salami to your boy in the army,” promotion during the war; they sent more then 100,000 salamis and still ship hundreds of pounds of their meats weekly. Each week they corn (pickle) and smoke 25,000 to 40,000 pounds of meat and serve 2,000 to 5,000 hot dogs along with 8,000 to 15,000 pickles (sour and half-sour).
Author, Jake Dell, a fifth generation owner who gave up going to medical school because he loves the business, reminds us of the origins of corned beef and pastrami. They are, respectively, pickled brisket and pickled smoked belly and were created in the shtetls of eastern Europe as a means of turning cheap cuts of beef into tender and delicious food, as well as a method of preserving the meat where there was no refrigeration.
Although Katz’s is a habit for regular customers, it is an iconic tourist attraction; tourists arrive by the busload. Up to 4,000 customers are served daily and all meat is cut by hand by cutters whose families have been working at the deli for three generations. There is a photo gallery of every category of employee, from cookers to cutters to servers to cleaners.
Katz’s remains a favorite of celebrities from the worlds of sports, theater, and politics. And, of course, everyone recalls the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in Katz’s, where a customer sitting nearby exclaims “I’ll have what she’s having!”
We are not certain if there has been a book about some of Katz’s famous neighbors, such as The Original Yonah Schimmel Knishery, or Gus’ Pickles, or Sammy’s Romanian. Gone are such legendary restaurants as Moskowitz & Lupovich, Glucksterns, and Ratners (a dairy emporium). In a sense, they are replaced by restaurants of the new immigrants, from Russia, Poland, Greece, Korea, and Vietnam.
Don’t expect any recipes in this book. The Autobiography of a Delicatessen—Katz’s offers methodology rather than recipes. It is rewarding to see Katz’s gain the recognition of other famous deli’s like the Carnegie Deli and the Second Avenue Deli. For more on this subject the reader may wish to read Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food, published in 2004.