How Pastrami Really Arrived in New York City

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Texas-style beef brisket barbecue is currently enjoying a period of nationwide vogue. So it was both timely and compelling when Robert Sietsema advanced a somewhat novel theory of pastrami's barbecue-bound origins in his 2015 book, New York in a Dozen Dishes. The longtime Village Voice restaurant critic, now senior critic at Eater New York, admitted that his argument was "far-fetched, perhaps." But he made it nonetheless: "Maybe New York pastrami as we know it—corned beef rubbed with spices and smoked—might have originated in Texas via Jewish butchers."

Sietsema, who lived in Texas himself before moving to New York, was drawing upon research by Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly, who had turned up several examples of grocers and butchers selling pastrami in Texas in the early part of the 20th century. Nick Solares, also at Eater, picked up on the thread recently, interviewing Vaughn for a video piece called "How Pastrami Arrived in New York City," which repeats the same conjecture about pastrami's Texan roots. "Pastrami, as we know it in the New York City deli, actually came from Europe through Texas, and then to New York," Solares proposes. "Czech and German butchers migrated to Texas and brought with them the way that they prepared meats, cured meats, in the Old World."

As a Southerner and barbecue lover myself, I would be delighted to claim pastrami as a legacy of the long, proud Southern tradition of slow-smoking meats. But, unfortunately, I can't: The historical record simply doesn't hold up.

Dig deep enough and it becomes clear that pastrami first established its foothold in large northern immigrant centers, like New York, Montreal, and Chicago, and was then taken across the country by a group of national-scale meatpacking companies. And—wait for it—it may have even gotten a little boost from a scandalous murder.

Pastirma Comes to America

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One problem we face when tracing the history of pastrami is that there was absolutely no agreement on how to spell the name of that particular meat product until well into the 20th century. "Pastrame," "pastromie," "pestrame," "pastromi," "pasturma," "pastromer," "pastroma"—all are variants found in early newspaper ads and other sources.

But it is safe to say that modern pastrami couldn't exist without a form of preserved meat known by at least one of the aforementioned names, the most common of which was "pastirma." Trade journals from the 1850s indicate that the area known today as Romania was exporting "pastroma, or jerk beef" from Brăila, one of the primary ports on the Danube River, by the mid-19th century, if not earlier. In his 1878 text, A Handy Dictionary of Commercial Information, Edward T. Blakely described the preparation as "ox, sheep, or goat's flesh salted, with garlic and spices, and dried in the sun for winter food."*

* Many accounts of pastrami's history claim that the original Romanian version was made with goose, but that its makers adapted the preparation to cheaper, more plentiful beef after moving to the United States. This idea seems to derive from a single source, Marcus Eli Ravage's 1917 book, An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant, in which the Romanian-born author recalls an early-1900s New York City where "on Rivington Street and on Allen Street the Rumanian delicatessen-store was making its appearance, with its goose-pastrama and kegs of ripe olives and tubs of salted vine-leaves." But, as trade journals and many other sources make clear, Romanians were making pastirma from all sorts of different meats back in the old country, primarily beef.

It's a form of preserved meat that can be found today across the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey around to Egypt. But the real question is how it got to the United States, became defined as a cut of beef brisket (or the fattier cut adjoining it, known as the navel), and started being piled atop rye bread in delis. Though Middle Eastern pastirma and American pastrami are both forms of cured beef, the preparations are quite different.

Pastirma is rubbed in salt to cure, dried in the open air for several days, and covered in a thick spice rub of fenugreek and cumin. The resulting meat has a vivid deep-red color and is typically sliced very thin, much like bresaola. Modern pastrami, on the other hand, is cured in a liquid brine, cold-smoked, and then boiled. And, unlike with pastirma, the spice coating—which is applied just before the meat goes on the smoker—is dominated by black pepper and coriander.

These crucial distinctions, however, remained irrelevant through much of the 19th century, since it doesn't seem that any of the pastirma exported during that period was actually destined for the United States. In fact, I've been unable to turn up any advertisements or other references to anything similar in name being sold in this country any earlier than the closing years of the 1890s, when a large wave of Eastern European immigration brought the pastirma-makers themselves to America.

Until the 1870s, the majority of immigrants in the United States had arrived from Germany. German-language New York newspapers were filled with advertisements for grocers or provisioners, listing a wide array of cheeses, sausages, and pickles under the heading "Delicatessen." "'Deutsch Delicatessen' is the sign over a Second Ave. shop," the New York Tribune noted in 1877, adding, "The window is heaped with huge bologna sausages." Until the early years of the 20th century, these were known as "delicatessen shops"—retailers of fancy foods, chief among them prepared meats.

Migration from Eastern European countries, including Romania, began to pick up in the 1880s and accelerated through the early 20th century. Between 1881 and 1914, in particular, some 75,000 Jews left Romania and settled in New York City. As these immigrants arrived on the Lower East Side, they began to open delicatessen stores that resembled those of their German predecessors, but featured kosher products alongside some of the more popular delicacies from their homelands.

One of those delicacies, it seems, was pastirma, and it didn't remain an isolated immigrant specialty for very long. Established German-American sausage companies quickly picked up on the preparation and added it to their nationally distributed lines, taking it all across America—including all the way down to Texas.

A Katz, A Volk, and a Lot of Baloney

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We'll address Texas in a moment, but let's first take a look at what has long been the standard line in food histories on pastrami's roots in America. Most accounts point to one of two establishments as the first to sell pastrami in the United States.

One is Katz's, the iconic Lower East Side delicatessen that's as widely known for its pastrami as it is for that When Harry Met Sally scene. Most commentators note that Katz's was founded in 1888, and, though no one seems to know when the store actually started selling pastrami, the general consensus seems to be that if they are so good at it now, they must have been doing it very early on.

The second belonged to Sussman Volk, who emigrated to New York City from Lithuania and opened a butcher shop on the Lower East Side. One day in 1887, the story goes, a Romanian friend stopped in to ask a favor before departing for a visit to his home country. In exchange for storage of his trunk during his travels, the Romanian offered Volk the secret recipe for his renowned pastrami. Volk agreed, and he promptly started making and selling the meat in his butcher shop. It was an immediate hit, and soon customers were ordering pastrami by the slice and asking for bread to put it on. Volk took over the shop next door at 88 Delancey Street, put in some tables, and created the first New York deli.

But both of these origin stories have a few chronological problems. Katz's Deli has long dated its founding to 1888, the year when two immigrant brothers, Morris and Hyman Iceland, supposedly opened a Lower East Side delicatessen called Iceland Brothers. It is said to have become "Iceland & Katz" when Willy Katz bought into the firm in 1903, and then just "Katz's Delicatessen" in 1910. But city directories and immigration records show that the Icelands didn't actually arrive in the United States until 1902, and Hyman Iceland didn't open his original delicatessen on East Houston Street until 1911. (You can read a more detailed chronology of Katz's Delicatessen on my website.)

Sussman Volk appears to have been in the game earlier than Iceland & Katz, but perhaps not as early as has been claimed. The first record of Volk operating any business is a city directory entry in 1899, which lists "Volk, Sussman, provisions" at 86 Delancey Street, a location he maintained until 1907, when he apparently moved next door to 88 Delancey and sold bologna, frankfurters, and "spiced meat." It's possible that Volk had actually opened his shop back in 1887 and remained absent from the city directories for over a decade, but it seems unlikely (and perhaps even suspicious) that the supposed date of the transaction just happens to be exactly one year before the much-publicized 1888 founding date for its rival claimant, Katz's.

If you adjust the timelines to match historical records, both Volk's business and Iceland & Katz were established not ahead of the curve, but rather right alongside a slew of other Jewish delicatessens that were then popping up on the Lower East Side—and a few years after pastrami started making a nationwide splash.

A National Pastirma Trade

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Though the spelling varied from establishment to establishment and publication to publication, it's undeniable that a new form of cured beef suddenly appeared on the American market in the late 1890s, and it did so all across the country. On March 14, 1899—in the same year that Sussman Volk's provisions shop first appears in a New York City directory—Stein's Grocery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, advertised a list of "Delicacies Received" that included "smoked roulade, smoked breast, knockwurst, pastroma, goose liver sausage" and other products. Just a few days later, on the opposite side of the country, Flourny's, a grocery store in Macon, Georgia, advertised a lengthy list of items that began with "[s]moked salmon, hard salami, smoked breast, pastroma, bologna."

Notices of this sort started showing up in Richmond, Virginia, in May of 1899, and in New Orleans in 1900, many of them in advertisements for Jewish grocers or for department stores that maintained delicatessen sections. Within a few years, a similar slate of sausages, cured meats, and cheese was being sold in dozens of cities throughout the country, including Des Moines; Omaha; Denver; Paducah, Kentucky; and Charlotte. Notably absent from this list are any cities in the state of Texas.

Also noteworthy is that the delicacies advertised were not made locally. Stein's Grocery in Santa Fe proclaimed that its selection had just been received from "M. Zimmerman" in New York. Phillips Delicatessen in New Orleans called itself the "Headquarters of David Berg & Co.'s Celebrated Kosher Goods," while Miller Van Ness Co. in Charlotte announced, "Don't forget we are handling Gombright's lines," which included wurst, "pastroma," hard salami, smoked tongues, and frankfurters. In a later ad, Phillips revised the spelling of its supplier's name, touting a "[f]resh lot, Gambrechts sausages."

I've not been able to track down Gombright or Gambrecht, but the other two producers named above were large, well-established houses. Moses Zimmerman, a German Jewish immigrant, opened a butcher shop on Houston Street in New York City in the 1870s. By the 1890s, he had a three-story factory that occupied almost an entire block of Houston Street; later, he added production facilities in Philadelphia and Boston. Pastirma was just one of the many items in the portfolio of a firm that advertised itself as "Manufacturers and Dealers in The Celebrated Vienna Bolognas, Sausages, Salamis, Cervelat, etc. Packers of Tongue, Smoked and Pickled Beef."

Chicago's David Berg & Co. was a major operation, too, and, like Zimmerman, Berg was a German Jewish immigrant who founded his business just after the Civil War. Billing himself as a purveyor of "kosher meats and sausages," Berg offered a line at the turn of the 20th century that included bologna, frankfurters, fresh and hard salami, paprika speck, goose fat, smoked beef, and—most relevant to us—what the firm tended to spell as "pastromer." David Berg & Co. changed hands several times over the course of the century before Chicago competitor Vienna Beef bought it in the 1990s. Its brand of hot dogs and Polish sausages, long a staple at Wrigley Field, is still on the market today.

By this point, American pastirma had evolved from air-dried beef to a brined or pickled product, cured with lots of pepper. It's very common to see ads parenthetically describe pastirma as "spiced beef" or "peppered beef," and one 1906 grocery ad hawks "[s]ome more of that delicious pickled beef Pastroma."

Part of the appeal of the pastrami-originated-in-Texas theory is that pastrami today is a form of smoked brisket, which is, of course, also a staple of Texas barbecue joints. In the early decades of the 20th century, though, this preparation was applied to many different cuts of beef. In 1906, D. Taub's Delicatessen Store in Bay City, Michigan, advertised "Pastroma breast," "Pastroma shoulder," and "Pastroma roulade," all for 35 cents a pound. In 1921, the Hygrade Provision Company of Brooklyn offered five varieties of "pastroma": "Smoked Pastroma, Shoulder; Smoked Pastroma, Breast; Smoked Pastroma-Roulade; Smoked Pastroma Payes; Smoked Pastroma, Flank." This is the first explicit reference I've found to pastirma or pastrami being smoked, but all the major dealers carried various smoked sausages and meats, and experimenting with smoking pastirma would have been a natural thing to do.

Putting it all together, I think we can lay to rest the idea that pastrami originated in Texas. If it had been born there, it would have been the creation of a butcher or meat-market proprietor who was slow-smoking his own meats, and we could expect to see that innovation advertised first in local papers. Instead, the very first mention of the meat in Texas that both Vaughn and I have found appears in the Dallas Morning News of March 22, 1908, by which time it had already been sold for almost a full decade in many other cities around the country. Even there, the ad is not for a local butcher or meat market but rather for Sonnemtheil's grocery store, and "Spiced Pastromer" is listed under the heading "Delicatessen Department," smack-dab between "smoked sturgeon" and "cooked corned beef."

A Grisly Conjecture

It took less than 10 years for pastirma (or pastromer, or pastrami, or whatever we want to call it) to spread across the country, but the speed and breadth of its transmission aren't actually all that surprising. In this period of American culinary history, as industrial food production, national distribution networks, and mass marketing were rapidly maturing, it was quite common for a newly introduced product to appear on the scene and almost immediately become a trendy national hit (see also, for instance, the popularization of pimento cheese).

Those German-American sausage-makers were certainly behind pastrami's wide distribution, but why did their companies see the need to add yet another cured meat to their already-broad lines?

The answer may be simply that pastrami is delicious. But I'd argue that there's more to it. The very first reference that I could find to pastrami (using any of its spellings) being sold on the American market appears in August 1897, and it does so in an odd and somewhat gruesome context.

On May 4, 1897, Louisa Luetgert, the wife of the well-known Chicago sausage dealer Adolph Louis Luetgert, was reported missing. Police began to suspect the sausage-maker himself, and when they searched his factory, they found the following items in the sediment at the bottom of a large sausage vat: a tooth, two corset steels, and two gold rings, one of them engraved with the initials "L. L." On May 17, Adolph Luetgert was arrested and charged with murder, accused of killing his wife and dissolving her body in lye.

The case became a national sensation, splashed on the front pages of newspapers across the country, and the lurid details of the crime and Luetgert's pending trial captured the morbid public imagination throughout the summer. On August 6, the Topeka State Journal reported that sausage-makers in Chicago were beside themselves with fury over the case, and not because they sympathized with their fellow craftsman Luetgert.

"The sausagemakers declare," the State Journal reported, "that when the first alleged discovery of the residuum of Mrs. Luetgert was made public, the appetite for sausage fell off to an extent that nearly bankrupted them. The butchers, their customers, they assert, would make purchases of pastroma, or pepper roulade of beef, but would shake their heads darkly when sausage was mentioned."

Is it possible that sausage-makers in Chicago and New York, faced with a depressed market for their sausages after the gory exposition of the Luetgert affair, turned to the pastirma preparation recently brought to America by Romanian immigrants?

It is a bit far-fetched, perhaps. But it makes about as much sense as pastrami being invented in Texas.