Arts & Culture

When Shiksa Met Jewish Meat

My mom tells me she once went through a corned beef phase of her life. At thirteen, after trying a corned beef sandwich for the first time, it was all she would order at restaurants. She’d eat the sandwich for … Read More

By / June 21, 2010

My mom tells me she once went through a corned beef phase of her life. At thirteen, after trying a corned beef sandwich for the first time, it was all she would order at restaurants. She’d eat the sandwich for days at a time. A little corned beef with her breakfast eggs, left over beef for dinner. Just imagine: a Chinese pre-teen rubbing elbows with your bubby at the local deli. The Chinese and Jews seem to have an unspoken bond, probably due to the Jewish tradition of Chinese food for Christmas dinner.

When I was thirteen, I was obsessed with lox shmear on poppy seed bagels. I’d dream about latkes and Dr. Brown’s cream soda, crave matzo ball soup for my sore throat. It’s possible my love for Jewish food is in my non-Jewish blood, but I think it’s the result of growing up in Berkeley, CA. As a kid, many of my friends were Jewish. And what did being Jewish mean to me, besides bar mitzvahs and saying words like "schmuck"? It meant getting to eat all these delicious things I couldn’t get anywhere but my friend’s kitchen and the neighborhood deli. Cholent, Matzah Brei, Pastrami. Forget the Old Testament, I learned about Judaism through eating.

I moved to New York in the fall of 2006, just a few months after the famed 2nd Ave Deli closed its doors. Walking down Tenth Street, my friends liked to point out the Chase Bank and the Pastrami PalaceThat Once Was. Though the 2nd Ave Deli reopened on 33rd Street in December of 2007, its original location is a sad reminder of New York City’s fading past. As rents rise, businesses and residents are forced to find refuge elsewhere. And when people and places disappear from the urban fabric, a piece of the city’s history leaves with them. It’s understandable then, that when 2nd Ave Deli closed its doors, many regulars felt as if the vitality of Jewish history was threatened. Where would Jews and Gentiles be able to participate in Judaism’s cultural legacy? Where else could New Yorkers bring their grandchildren to remember their past through culinary adventure? 

The delicatessen as we know it was conceived in New York,with the first several waves of Eastern European immigrants. The very first delis were likely German and sold specialties like frankfurters, liverwurst and sausages. The word delicatessen itself is likely of German origin, meaning "delicious things to eat" or "delicacies". Over time, however, the deli became a melding of Ashkenazi traditions from not only Germany, but all over Europe. The new American environment also contributed to the shape of these delicious things to eat. Goose was the previous choice of meat for several Ashekanzi dishes, but in the United States, beef was much more widely available. Recipes that favored goose were soon reinvented with inexpensive cuts of kosher beef. Sandwiching the meat between two slices of bread further integrated the immigrant food into American cuisine.

The delicatessen has been in decline since the 1950s, when the rise of suburban communities drew many Jewish families out of New York City. Immigration restrictions to the U.S. also made it difficult for Eastern European Jews to settle in New York. With fewer Jews to run the delis, and without a steady stream of immigrants, delicatessens either assimilated into more general deli businesses or disappeared altogether. Remaining Jewish delis are currently caught between cultural expectations, nostalgia and increased cost in food. Many people go to Carnegie Deli, for example, with the expectation of ordering a sandwich the size of a skyscraper. The cost of such asandwich, however, could put any deli out of business.

Today, many deli owners across the country are responding to deli-decline by returning to the food and rewriting the menu. Increased food prices and concern over agricultural sustainability have many rethinking the role of Jewish food in a more global context. Saul’s, my hometown deli, no longer offers salami. Instead of Dr. Brown’s, they make their own cream, celery, and black cherry sodas. The meats are grass-fed and the sandwiches are smaller. ?Though some may complain that Saul’s is no longer an authentic deli (just because it doesn’t offer chilled borscht during the winter months) the owners are trying to change that perception. They’re asking the kvetchers, what really makes a deli authentic? Why can’t the menu promote foods that are healthy for both our bodies and the Earth? Jewish food is so tied to memory that changes in recipes or preparation may seem threatening to decades of history. Ultimately, however, culture and tradition are constantly evolving. In order to stay alive and in business, delis need to make adjustments.

The transition from fatty pastrami to leaner meat is sure to be rough, however. Change is always difficult so I urge you, deli owners: when those pre-teen Chinese girls are disappointed with the size of their corned beef sandwiches, please be kind to their hungry bellies, their broken hearts and their only semi-clotted arteries.


For more information on the state of Jewish delis, get your greasy hands on David Sax’s book, Save The Deli. If you are interested in learning more about the changes at Saul’s Delicatessen – check out the video of their community meeting at the JCC: Referendum on the Deli Menu.