Comprehensive, mouth watering and heart breaking

by | Jan 8, 2016 | Book Reviews

Pastrami on Rye An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli
Ted Merwin
New York University Press, 2015
189pp. plus notes
ISBN 978-0-8147-6031-4

“I’ll have what she’s having!” Who doesn’t remember that line from Rob Reiner’s 1989 hit When Harry Met Sally? No current book about delicatessens would be complete without that famous scene with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in Katz’s Delicatessen (on Houston Street in New York City). Ted Merwin’s scholarly, but entertaining work is no exception (see also Autobiography of a Delicatessen—Jewish News 2013). However, Pastrami on Rye is so much more.

Ted Merwin is associate professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and writes about Jewish theater, dance, and food for the New York Jewish Week, among other newspapers and magazines.

Merwin reminds us that it was a rabbi who (purportedly) invented the first sandwich and every Passover we combine symbolic food with matzo to make a “Hillel sandwich.” In Pastrami on Rye, the reader is taken back through the centuries to the creation in medieval France of delicat, morphing into delicatesse, delicatezza in Italian, and delicatesse in Germany. The phenomenon was the democratization of gourmet eating in Europe.

We are further reminded that the first generation of immigrants from Eastern Europe couldn’t afford to “eat out” or purchase meats from the delis that were springing up. But the next generation, though of modest means, took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the delicious smoked and pickled meats—and the deli, soon to be found in every neighborhood, became a place of socialization. Several chapters detail the growth in popularity of kosher delis in particular, followed by their decline as subsequent generations abandoned the immigrant commitment to kashrut. But “kosher style” delis prospered, attracting non-Jewish Americans of all heritages and faiths.

The deli’s name, and the food it offered became more important than its physical location. In the past, the menu and quality of the food were fairly standard. What mattered more was the neighborhood it nurtured. Today, the diversity of later immigrant groups brought a variety of foods, including Kosher Thai and Kosher Sushi and Kosheryou- name-it. There are, perhaps, a dozen kosher delis left in the five boroughs of New York where once there were more than 1,000.

What remains are mainly for tourists; think Katz’s, the Carnegie; Ben’s, the Second Avenue.

Outside of New York, there are very few kosher deli’s and except for major cities, many advertise themselves as “New York” delis.

The delis of my youth in my Bronx neighborhood were small “no name” places with only a few tables; but they all had a grill in the window showing off the hot dogs (5 cents) and knishes. Krinkle cut fries, redolent of well-used peanut oil, could be “taken out” in a little waxed paper bag and eaten on the way to or from school or the movies. One deli on my block had a sign in the window, “a nickel a shtickle.” I asked the owner, “What’s a nickel a shtickle?” He said, “Do you have a nickel?” “Yes,” I replied. So he shmeared good deli mustard (that usually came in a conical twist of wax paper) on the “heel” of a loaf of rye bread and placed on it the heel (the end piece) of a salami. It was wonderful!

Finally, barely mentioned by the author were, what in retrospect, could be termed milchig delis. These were the appetizing stores, selling the dairy products a kosher deli selling meat could not carry. Russ and Daughters (The House that Herring Built, Jewish News 2013) is no longer kosher (it sells non-kosher caviar), but is one of the survivors, run by fifth generation family members. Appetizing stores were not designed to eat in—they had barrels outside with three kinds of pickles (new, half-sour and sour), two kinds of sauerkraut, and pickled sweet peppers and tomatoes. For a dime the proprietor would fill a “Chinese take-out container” with sauerkraut, perhaps a pickled tomato and pepper, topped off with sauerkraut juice.

Inside, an appetizing store were at least six kinds of herring, cheeses, and a dozen varieties of smoked fish. During the depression it wasn’t unusual to hear a woman order “half a qvarter (pound) lox from the belly.” The kosher dairy restaurants (like Ratners), having basically disappeared, are experiencing a renaissance in Manhattan—but names like Va Bene, La Volla, and Blossom Vegan are more likely to be found—all kosher.

Merwin’s comprehensive history of the deli is a celebration and at the same time has its elegiac component. It makes one’s mouth water and one’s heart break as the rise and fall of the deli symbolizes and parallels the passing of time and lifestyles of Jewish communities. The survivors have become ancient monuments as “lieu de memoire”—sites of memory.

And who actually spoke that line, “I’ll have what she’s having”? None other than Carl Reiner’s mother, Estelle Reiner. If you’re too young to remember this, try Netflix—it’s a classic!

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.