Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.
In Pastrami on Rye, Ted Merwin traces the rise and fall of the delicatessen in American Jewish life and culture. The delicatessen reached its peak not with the first generation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but with their children. Between 1920 and 1960, the delicatessen offered a bridge between immigrants and their children and between Jews and the mainstream. It also served as a "third place" (neither work nor home) for Jewish communities, serving food that was rich and traditional, if not always strictly kosher. Eating deli food was, as Merwin says, "a secular rather than a religious way of being Jewish" (6). It was also closely linked to New York City, even as delis sprouted in Jewish communities throughout the nation.
One of Merwin's most useful contributions is to correct the timing of delicatessen's entry into American life. Although Eastern European Jewish communities had traditions of pickled, cured, smoked, and salted meats (including pastrami, a Turkish and Romanian delicacy, whose origin is traced to Central Asian horsemen who pressed salted raw beef between horse and saddle to cure it), most Jews in Europe were too poor to consume much. The first delicatessens in New York were German delis, selling fine imported groceries and delicacies like sausages and smoked goose. Jewish delis actually arose from the numerous New York kosher butcher shops, which began selling prepared foods, cooked meats, and quick snacks like knishes. But Merwin argues that the first generation of Eastern European immigrants bought little ready-to-eat deli food since it was quite expensive, especially the meats, and immigrant women resisted take-out food as a dereliction of their home cooking duties.
Merwin uses the records of delicatessen owners and kosher meatpackers to tell his story. Kosher meat was a big business, one whose profitability led naturally to crime and corruption. It was tempting for meat suppliers to replace expensive kosher meat with its cheaper non-kosher counterpart, with customers none the wiser. The inability to discern kosher from non-kosher meat, except by guarantee, points to the fundamental difficulty. Jews who were most insistent on kashrut were not inclined to eat out much. Delis became central to American Jewish life when the second generation became more flexible in dietary matters, willing to eat non-kosher food if it was Jewish style, or if it was eaten outside the home.
Delis truly came into their own as community gathering places and as a force in American Jewish culture as New York Jews left crowded tenements on the Lower East Side for new neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. The deli became a place to celebrate second-generation success and American abundance, with rich, fatty meats piled high, soups, cheesecake, and Cel-Ray soda. Delicatessen food was embedded in Jewish popular culture: in songs, skits, family gatherings, even in the recurring association of deli meat with eroticism and virility. On Broadway, delis became showbiz hangouts, partly due to the large presence of Jews in the entertainment industries. High and low met at the Broadway delis before and after shows, eating sandwiches (which were the height of urban modernity in the 1920s). Delis were New York creations but branched out to other cities in the first half of the 20th century-Miami, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago-and formed anchors for the Jewish communities in those cities.
Delicatessen food by the 1920s offered a refuge for the reputedly lazy "jazz wife," who ran out and got deli food instead of cooking. But
delicatessens also fit into the larger early twentieth-century trend in which almost everyone ate out more often, or bought ready-to-eat food to eat at home. By World War II, meat rationing hurt the delis but also encouraged more eating out. Sliced deli meat required ration stamps to purchase, but a deli sandwich did not. A waiter at the Sixth Avenue Delicatessen claimed to have originated the suggestion, taken up by other delis, to "Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army," offering a taste of deli food even to overseas GIs eating abundant but very middle-American Army food.
Just as the move to the outer boroughs triggered the golden age of delicatessens, the postwar movement to the suburb heralded its demise. Although delicatessens followed Jews to suburban shopping malls, their centrality as a cultural institution began to diminish. Deli food manufacturers like Hebrew National commodified and packaged their products, which could be sold in grocery stores and marketed to Jews and non-Jews alike. Deli food found a broader market (at least the more mainstream items: pastrami, not kishke), even as postwar Jews began to distance themselves from those foods in favor of other options. Chinese, Italian, and Mediterranean food all seemed more exotic, healthier, and more desirable than the old favorites. By the 1980s, delicatessen food seemed irretrievably fatty, gassy, and unhealthy, and the loud, brassy atmosphere of the deli was less appealing than the charms of an Italian trattoria.
Today, there are few real delicatessens left in New York and almost no kosher delis. The remaining delis emphasize their New York heritage, not their Jewish origins. A few restaurants have tried to reproduce deli classics with fresher, healthier, more sustainable, more global ingredients and techniques. But since fewer Jews are active in their communities, there is less need of a "third place" to meet and eat.
As the title claims, the book is indeed "overstuffed." Merwin includes endless fascinating small tidbits about deli history. He is sometimes unable to omit an interesting aside or source of evidence, at the expense of cohesion. However, the result is still easy to read, and provides a valuable account of an oft-mentioned but rarely investigated aspect of urban American food culture, as well as a contribution to the rich history of American Jewish culture.
Katherine Leonard Turner
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|Author:||Turner, Katherine Leonard|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2016|
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