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Authors: Ted Merwin

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Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

BOOK: Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli
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Pastrami on Rye
Pastrami on Rye
An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

Ted Merwin


New York and London

New York University Press

New York and London

© 2015 by Ted Merwin

All rights reserved

References to Internet websites (URLs) were accurate at the time of writing. Neither the author nor New York University Press is responsible for URLs that may have expired or changed since the manuscript was prepared.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Merwin, Ted, 1968–

Pastrami on rye : an overstuffed history of the Jewish deli / Ted Merwin.

pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-8147-6031-4 (cloth : acid-free paper)

1. Delicatessens—United States--History. 2. Jews—United States—Social life and customs. 3. Jewish cooking—History. I. Title.

TX945.4.M47 2015

641.5'676--dc23 2015010490

New York University Press books are printed on acid-free paper, and their binding materials are chosen for strength and durability. We strive to use environmentally responsible suppliers and materials to the greatest extent possible in publishing our books.

Manufactured in the United States of America

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Also available as an ebook

For my wife, Andrea,

and our three daughters,

Hannah, Sarah, and Leah

When the American soldier abroad speaks with nostalgia of “God’s own country,” I suspect he is thinking of New England fish chowder, ham and eggs, and pumpkin pie, rather than the Constitution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Smithsonian Institute. The Frenchman, dreaming of la belle France, really has in mind frog’s legs à l’Aurore or suprêmes of chicken Richelieu and not the Louvre or the Sorbonne. When an Englishman, stationed in one of the Empire’s far flung mandates, dreams of this plot of earth which is England, he is not thinking of the mother of parliaments, Shakespeare or the British Museum, but of roast beef, boiled-to-death vegetables and suet pudding—although why I cannot imagine. And so it is with us Jews who frequently speak of the heritage of Israel when what we really have in mind is—yes—Jewish delicatessen.

r C
, “From the American Scene: One Touch of Delicatessen” (1946)

Always Left Wanting More

rowing up in the affluent Long Island, predominantly Jewish, suburb of Great Neck in the 1970s and ’80s, I listened eagerly to my mother and her cousin Marcia reminiscing about working Sunday evenings waiting tables and busing dishes in Uncle Ben’s deli in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I heard about the hustle and bustle, the interactions between the working-class customers and the wise-cracking old Jewish waiters, the kibitzing at the deli counter with the jocular countermen in their white paper hats.

Partly as a connection to my grandparents, who did not keep kosher but who ate nothing but traditional eastern European Jewish food, I grew to love eating in delis, although the suburban ones that were close to my home had a more pretentious atmosphere with their Art Deco lighting, glass columns, and blond wood paneling. The fatty, scrumptious food was mouthwatering—the peppery pastrami, the chewy corned beef, the sour seeded rye bread, the fluffy matzoh balls in parsley-flecked chicken broth, the crunchy fresh pickles, the tangy coleslaw.

Part of what entranced me about delis was the set of elaborate, almost theatrical rituals that governed the making of the sandwiches. There was an intricate, elegant choreography to the movements of the counterman as he sliced up the meat. He
took the soft, succulent beef from the steam table and sliced it by hand with a flourish, piling up the slices in the center of the bread—sour, chewy rye studded with black caraway seeds—as if building a monument on a town square. He slid the sandwich down the counter to you in a single, graceful motion, like a pitcher delivering a fastball to home plate.

You took the plate to your table, dipped a little wooden paddle into a small glass jar, and painted the bread with thick, impatient strokes of mustard. You opened wide and took a big, cavernous bite. The meat didn’t melt in your mouth—it crumbled into it, imploding into it, your teeth plowing through the fat and muscle, your taste buds slapping again and again into the sheer rosiness of it, bursting into a long, drawn-out, happy song.

My parents had no formal connections to the Jewish community. They didn’t belong to a synagogue, didn’t celebrate the High Holy Days, and didn’t send me to Hebrew school. But on Sunday nights, especially when my grandparents were visiting, my mother would dispatch me around the corner to Middle Neck Road to a kosher-style deli pompously called Squire’s. I was delegated to pick up an unvarying order: a pound of roast beef, a pound of turkey, a dozen slices of rye bread studded with caraway seeds, a can of vegetarian baked beans, and a squat cylindrical take-out container of gravy. We made our own sandwiches around the round, wooden kitchen table. When we took the first bite of deli, our Jewishness came in like the tide. Before long, nothing but crumbs were left on that table, as if a biblical plague of locusts had devoured everything in sight.

I was always left wanting more.

When I first started to learn about Judaism as a student at Amherst College, it wasn’t the food that attracted me—there wasn’t much good nosh in western Massachusetts—but the simple, lilting Hebrew songs about peace and goodwill, the sense of fellowship with other Jewish students, the restrained, regal elegance of the Sabbath and holiday rituals, the scrappy
emphasis on social justice, and the unwavering focus on moral self-improvement.

I never took a course in religion at Amherst, but I ended up writing my senior thesis as a play about intermarriage between Jews and Christians in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, where the boundaries between the two groups seemed remarkably fluid and a large percentage of Jews married outside the faith. When I first started writing and teaching about Jewish food, I realized that the deli had served both as a place for the reinforcement of American Jewish identity and as a comfortable space for non-Jews to sample Jewish culture. But no one, to my surprise, had traced the history of the deli in New York or pinpointed its heyday. No one had peered through the greasy, garlicky, gassy, and gluttonous lens of the pastrami sandwich into the role of Jewish deli food in American culture.

Although my family did not belong to a synagogue, did not observe Jewish law, and celebrated few Jewish holidays, eating in delis offered me a sense of Jewish identity that I found in few other places. Whenever we celebrated a family occasion, my grandmother invariably ordered a tongue sandwich, which, in retrospect, seems entirely appropriate; it was as if the tongue that she ate was connected in a double sense to her own tongue—both her gift of gab and her parents’ native language (Yiddish is known as the
, the mother’s tongue), which, to her deep regret, was not being transmitted to her grandchildren.

I grew up at a time when the deli had long since ceased to function as a major gathering place for the Jewish community, when, even in Great Neck, it was J. P. King’s, the Chinese restaurant on Grace Avenue, that was a more popular hangout spot than Squire’s. But the deli sandwiches remain more salient in my memory than the moo shu pork or the beef lo mein at the Chinese eatery; they connected me to my people and to my past in a way that the Chinese dishes, however delicious, never could.

I knew that these foods from the Jewish deli were the same foods that my grandparents had eaten during their own upbringing,
the foods with which they had celebrated births, weddings, and funerals—the foods that enabled them to build and sustain community with other second-generation Jews at a time when Jewishness was not simply an aspect of their identity or experience but the central, defining, and ineluctable feature of their existence.

Eating in delis was, for them, a laid-back, unfussy, grass-roots experience that required no education, no upper-class breeding, no intricate knowledge of manners and mores. Eating in delis, which were permeated with both the aura of abundance and the culture of celebrity, made Jews feel that, for them too, the American Dream was at long last eminently within their reach—so close, you might say, that they could taste it.


uthors often compare writing a book to birthing a child. Writing this one was more like raising an unruly child to adolescence. In the more than ten years that it took me to research and write it, my wife, Andrea, and I had three children: Hannah, who is mentioned in the manuscript as a kindergartner, when she tasted deli for the first time, just had her bat mitzvah. (And no, we didn’t serve deli; my wife drew the line.) Our middle daughter, Sarah, never tires of reminding me that my wife wrote a whole manuscript in just two months while serving on the staff of Camp Ramah in the Poconos; she is dubious that someone could spend such a long time on a single project. And our youngest, Leah, seems to have most inherited my affinity for eastern European Jewish food, especially kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats with bowtie noodles, for the uninitiated).

First and foremost, I owe a gigantic debt of gratitude to my editor at NYU Press, Jennifer Hammer, who initially suggested that I write a book on this topic and who kept an unbroken faith in it all along, as it went through multiple rounds of peer review. I feel a strong connection to NYU, partly because my father worked there for decades, editing the alumni magazine at the NYU Medical School, and partly because my grandmother
volunteered on Fridays at the Student Activities office of the same school, selling discount theater tickets to the medical students. This is what enabled my family to attend Broadway and off-Broadway shows on a regular basis throughout my childhood, and I credit my love of theater (the field in which I earned my Ph.D.) to these early theatergoing experiences.

I’m also very much indebted to Professor Darra Goldstein at Williams College, the former editor of
, for her help and encouragement. And I am exceedingly grateful to my former agent, Michele Rubin, and to my new one, Susan Ginsburg, at Writers House in New York. My freelance editor, Alice Peck, suggested the book’s title.

I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun—and a lot of good pastrami sandwiches—working on this project, including interviewing dozens of deli owners and executives of kosher sausage companies, who were generous with their time and anecdotes. I’m also grateful to Marty Silver, former executive vice president of Hebrew National, for allowing me unfettered access to his company’s archives in Jericho, Long Island. And I’d like to convey my appreciation to Ziggy Gruber, Brian Merlis, and Marlene Katz Padover for their help in locating and reproducing images for the book.

I’m indebted to many librarians and archivists, including Shulamith Berger at the Special Collections of Yeshiva University Library, Jeremy Megraw at the Billy Rose Theater Collection of the New York Public Library, and Dan Sharon at the Spertus Institute in Chicago (who, after one research trip to the library, mailed me articles for years whenever he ran across something that was germane to my topic). And I want to thank David Sax, author of
Save the Deli
, for always making time to chat about delis and to help me to track down an elusive interviewee.

I thank my terrific editor at the
Jewish Week
, Rob Goldblum, who has given me helpful feedback, endless encouragement, and weekly opportunities to stretch my wings as a writer by enabling me to pen a wide variety of articles, including the personal essays and reflection pieces that are my forte. I thank
Provost Neil Weissman at Dickinson College, as well as the college’s Research and Development Committee, for the resources to travel and share my ideas with academic and popular audiences alike. And I thank my students, who, even as they are required to revise draft after draft of their own essays, have pushed me to become both a better writer and a better teacher of writing.

Helpful feedback and valuable suggestions came from Simon Bronner, Hasia Diner, Jenna Weissman Joselit, Melissa Klapper, Sharon O’Brien, Arthur Sabatini, and Paul Zakrzewski. In addition, many of the ideas in this book come from people who have heard me speak, and I want to thank both the organizers of these programs and the audience members—it is always invaluable for me to get feedback on my work and to share my abiding love of this subject with people for whom the deli was a central feature of their own childhoods, a setting for some of their most cherished memories of family and friends. Even as the deli itself continues to fade into obscurity, these memories will endure.

My greatest thanks, of course, go to my wife, Andrea, who shares all of my hopes and dreams—and, occasionally, my sandwiches. Her love and support make everything that I do not just possible but pleasurable and fulfilling. She wrote about the power of and symbolism of food in Judaism long before it ever occurred to me as a research topic of my own. I love her with all my heart—and quite a bit of my stomach.

BOOK: Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli
6.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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