On the Jewish food scene: “Immersive” research in Jewish deli culture, pt 1

By Bill Simons

Recently, as I was about to undertake “immersive” research in New York City’s Jewish delis, several kibitzers provided food for thought. From cousin Robert came shared memory and experience: “I was at Katz’s a few years ago and could go daily – those latkes, the ½ sour tomatoes w/ pastrami! ... Have a great time ‘investigating.’” My friend Sam, a former newspaper editor, exhorted, “You’d better bring back pastrami, corned beef and Jewish rye bread to cater that April get-together.” An attorney turned baseball writer, Larry evoked his favorites, “On a toasted poppy seed bagel with butter, a bit of cream cheese and a little Jarlsberg, not to mention white fish and lox. Probably keep me up all night.” From Steve, a psychologist, came caution: “Remember the talmudic guidance concerning moderation in all things, especially those involving pastrami.”

A few weeks ago, my wife, Nancy, drove me from our hilltop farmhouse to nearby Delhi to pick up a Trailways bus for the five-hour trip to the Jewish delis of New York City. As the bus navigated the rolling hills of New York’s rural Delaware County, I thought of my initiation to Jewish deli food as a boy during the 1950s. Occasionally, my parents would take my sister and me to Sam’s, a no frills deli in the then dying Jewish, working-class section of Chelsea just outside Boston that served the best corned beef – thin cut and trimmed – I have ever had. Another time piece: on memorable Sunday nights, we would gather with cousins, aunts and uncles at the home of Grandpa Joe and Nana Bertha to eat takeout deli from Mel and Murray’s. We savored the food amidst loud, crowded, happy gatherings of generations of the Simons family. 

From adulthood, other special deli memories beckon. The first time I took Nancy to the Carnegie Deli, she was aghast at sandwiches that required two hands to hold. After I gave a 2005 Father’s Day presentation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on Jewish baseball slugger Hank Greenberg, my dad’s boyhood hero, he, Nancy and son Joe took me out to celebrate at Katz’s, where countermen plied us with samples as we navigated the long line. 

Variations, evolution and disputants preclude a final word, but I do have my own definition of an authentic Jewish deli. Although the menu must offer many eat-in and take-out options, it needs grounding in brine-cured, heavily salted, fatty meats, particularly overstuffed pastrami and corned beef sandwiches on rye bread slathered in mustard. Kosher pickles, sour tomatoes, cheesecake and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda are expected. Long counters, meat displays, expert cutting and slicing, an absence of tablecloths and an abundance of noisy chatter are customary. Although adherence to kashrut is not mandatory, respect for Jewish culinary tradition is. 

During my late March three-day New York City sojourn, I experienced five delis, three authentically Jewish and two faux. Decades of deli noshing, in cities from Boston (the Essex) to Los Angeles (Canter’s), preceded my most recent consumption-based deli research in New York City, as did considerable pop and academic reading along with content analysis of theater, film and TV. 

References and images derived from Jewish deli culture thread through American humor. Improbably playing a manic Napoleon on Broadway in 1924, Groucho Marx jibes, “I am beginning to smell like a delicatessen.” On his hit 1960s record, funnyman Allan Sherman sang, “When you go to the delicatessen store, Don’t buy the liverwurst… Oh buy the corned beef if you must.” In a 1976 “Saturday Night Live” skit, “Samurai Delicatessen,” a threatening, sword-wielding John Belushi deconstructs the protocols of the deli counterman. To satirize her as the WASP “other,” Diane Keaton, in the deli scene from Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” (1977), orders pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise. “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984) employs Jewish comics at their Carnegie Deli hangout as a Greek chorus to tell the story of a hapless talent agent. A 1996 episode of “Seinfeld” features Jerry bantering over pastrami at the Second Avenue Deli. In a 2013 episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David battles Ted Danson for naming rights of a deli sandwich. During “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” 2016-2023 run, the title character hangs out at Artie’s Delicatessen, leading to the real-life promotional marketing of a pastrami-flavored martini.

When Billy Crystal takes Meg Ryan, his shiksa fantasy, to Katz’s deli in “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), she deflowers masculine pretention by mimicking the sounds of an intense orgasm, leading an older woman at another table to instruct the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.” That film line inspired an ambitious exhibit, “‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’: The Jewish Deli” that played at the New-York Historical Society Museum from November 11, 2022-April 2, 2023, after previously debuting at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles.

Employing photographs; drawings; text; physical artifacts; mannequin and prop recreations of people and places; and film, the New-York Historical Society exhibit interpreted the evolution of the New York City Jewish deli as reflection of Jewish American history from late 19th century mass immigration from Eastern Europe through the present. Influenced by Old World culinary traditions, food availability and Jewish settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan – defined by overcrowded tenements, sweatshops and poverty – the antecedents to the deli appeared circa 1900 in the form of food sold from pushcarts and sidewalk stands. Modest brick and mortar delis then emerged as places where immigrant Jews could talk loudly and argue without encountering host society ridicule while lustily eating cured meats and expressing their form of masculinity and sexual identity. The deli, however, was not central to immigrant life. 

With the second generation, emphasized the New-York Historical Society exhibit, the Jewish deli reached its apex between the 1920s’ Jazz Age and the 1950s’ early years of the Cold War. Hundreds of Jewish delis marked the Jewish neighborhoods of New York City, with the Midtown Broadway theater district home to the most iconic, including Lindy’s, the Gaiety, Reuben’s, Carnegie Deli and the Stage Delicatessen. 
What happened to those famous Jewish delis? To be continued. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.