Despite its name, the Jewish delicatessen is for everyone. If anything, an overstuffed sandwich of pastrami, or corned beef, or brisket is what helped Jews assimilate into the United States after the great migrations of the 1800s and 1900s. The delicatessen is where the children of immigrants became Americans, where the recipes of a global diaspora, inspired by necessity and tradition, came together to form a paradoxical spread of hedonistic abundance: foot-high piles of meat, basins of pickles, heaping scoops of chopped chicken liver, and loaves upon puffy loaves of rye.
It all began more than two thousand years ago. As discussed by Ted Merwin in Pastrami on Rye, ancient Hebrews ate meat only after a ritual animal sacrifice to God, when the fresh roast was served to the community as a holy feast. They believed that to consume the blessed meat was to actually consume joy (although priests warned that the available joy in the meat would start deteriorating after about two days).
The Hebrews then wanted to know if they could eat sacrificial meat on the night before Tisha B'Av, an annual 25-hour fast commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians, and then 655 years later, on the same day, by the Romans. Might it cause them to be too joyful on this somber anniversary? The priests agreed they could, on one condition: the meat would have to be pickled for two days to ensure that all of the sacrificial joy was gone. Thus, the relationship between Jews and cured meat was born.
The delicatessen, however, is a more recent innovation. During the French Revolution, as the aristocracy fled their estates, private chefs found themselves out of work. They set their sights on the rising upper class of government delegates, opening fine dining restaurants and charcuteries, or gourmet food shops, which specialized in cured and spiced meats. The goods of the charcuterie were referred to by the umbrella term délicatesse, from the Latin root delicatus, meaning dainty or alluring.
The Germans adopted this word, calling their own prepared food shops delikatessens, and when Germans immigrated en masse to the United States in the 1840s (with more than 10,000 Jews among them), they brought the concept along with them. By the end of the 19th century, as repeated pogroms in Eastern Europe forced even greater numbers of Jews to flee to America, the many kosher delicatessens in New York opened by German Jews were already waiting with open doors, cured meat, and pickled vegetables.* And, from New York, as things tend to do, the Jewish delicatessen spread to the rest of the country, adopted and beloved by all.
*Because kashrut forbids the mixing of meat and dairy, delicatessens have historically stood as companion shops to appetizing stores, where milk and other dairy products, as well as smoked fish and other parve (neither meat nor dairy) foods are sold.
"There is a much bigger percentage now of non-Jewish clientele than years gone by," remarks Avi Friede, co-owner of 42-year old New Jersey deli institution Kosher Nosh (and the deli of my childhood). "A lot of it because they grew up in the metropolitan area and they moved to the suburbs and they are looking for New York deli." Nowadays, Jew and non-Jew alike seek shelter in comfortable, old-school dining rooms in every state, where the sandwiches are piled high with at least six ounces of meat and the waitresses scold and baby you at the same time. Every item in the deli has its roots in the old country, as Avi makes clear: "If my mother didn't teach me, I can't make it."
Before tackling the meat, let's take a look at the anatomy of the cow, the source of most of your sandwich options. All mammals have a sciatic nerve, the longest and largest nerve in the body, which runs from the lower back, over the hips, and down both legs (you may have heard someone complain of their "sciatica," or lower back and leg pain). Kosher law forbids Jews from eating this nerve, because in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, Jacob wrestles with an angel and the angel touches Jacob's hip socket, putting the joint out of place and rendering Jacob limp—thus, "to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket" (Genesis 32:22-32).
It's extremely difficult to remove this nerve from hindquarter beef cuts (e.g. filet, flank, sirloin, round), and requires a skilled butcher and a good deal of time, making a kosher version prohibitively expensive. Yet, desirable cuts of beef from the kosher forequarters of the cow, like the rib and the chuck, were too expensive for the peasant Jews of Eastern Europe—even Jewish cattle merchants, who had easy access to the entire animal, knew it was more lucrative to sell these cuts to non-Jews than to keep them for themselves. They made do with the economical but unpopular brisket, the stringy and tough meat and fat that covers the cow's breastbone, which requires hours of stewing or simmering to make it moist and tender.
While whole roasted brisket, a classic Jewish holiday dish, is easily overcooked and often ends up quite dry and chewy in the hands of inexperienced home cooks, deli cuts are sliced from a carefully simmered brisket—soft, juicy, and undeniably beefy—and stored in a steam table along with the other meats (a common practice among all Jewish delis), which circulates water vapor and keeps the cuts moist. Brisket is ordinarily served cold with mustard on rye or hot and slathered in gravy as a platter with mashed potatoes or French fries.
In the early days of livestock agriculture, cattle were typically slaughtered at the end of autumn so they wouldn't need to be kept alive over the winter. The farmers dry-salted most of the resulting beef, which, along with the cooler weather, helped it keep over a few months—a common method of preservation on every continent throughout history. The medieval English called this tough, dry, chewy meat product "corned beef", a term that first appeared in print in 1621 (the "corn" in corned beef refers to a coarse grain of salt). This essential preservation technique traveled with the European Jews on their boats to New York in the massive wave of immigration of the late 1800s, where, thanks to the advent of refrigeration in the United States, Jewish deli owners, now unconcerned with long-term preservation, switched to a weaker salt brine, called pickle, which yielded softer, more succulent cured beef.
Corned beef starts as a whole brisket, which is submerged in brine, under a weight, for at least three weeks, steamed until tender, and thinly carved into sandwich slices.
Pastrami is descended from another form of this ancient jerky, known as basturma. The 14th-century Ottomans pressed their slices of fish and meat to extract any moisture, rubbed them with a fenugreek-heavy mixture of spices, and left them to air-dry. The preserved protein was especially useful sustenance for Ottoman army troops marching long distances. When the troops and their jerky eventually reached the Balkans, the Romanian Jews of the area adopted the preservation method and added their own local spices; the altered concoction was commonly referred to as pastrama (though other spellings and pronunciations, such as pastirma and pastroma abounded).
We've already covered the story of how pastrami arrived in New York City; there, the fundamental technique evolved from a dry cure to a liquid brine. Modern delis all use the same general process for their pastrami: start with brine-cured beef, rub it down with red wine vinegar, add a centuries-old secret family spice mixture (which may include any and all of the following: peppercorns, allspice, bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, juniper berries, garlic, red pepper flakes, mustard seed, cardamom, and onion), optionally dry-cure for up to two weeks, smoke for seven hours, and braise or steam. With the amount of flavor the meat absorbs from this variety of spices, it's no wonder that it's only acceptable to place the pastrami in between two slices of sturdy rye and adorn it with a smear of spicy mustard, and nothing more, lest you be kicked out of the deli, or, equally embarrassingly, outed as a delicatessen amateur.
The pastrami sandwich is famous for this particularly staunch proscription, like a chef's tasting menu that stipulates "no substitutions": cheese, barbecue sauce, gravy, white bread, lettuce, tomato, and most importantly, mayo, are not acceptable on a pastrami sandwich, although only cheese would actually be unkosher (as milk cannot be mixed with meat). Many Jewish delis aren't even kosher anymore and are commonly referred to as "kosher-style" delis; for example, you can easily get a pastrami reuben, with swiss and sauerkraut, at New York City's Katz's Delicatessen, the strictest of delis, but their traditional pastrami sandwich carries a written warning: "Ask for mayo at your own peril." The mayo restriction is, arguably, a rule born of cultural tradition, based on pure stubbornness and the ingrained stereotype that only WASPs eat sandwiches with mayo and white bread. Adding mayo to the sandwich is akin to slathering your spaghetti in ketchup at a rustic Italian restaurant.
Considered offal, from the Middle Dutch avfal ("off-fall"), meaning the animal bits that fall off of the butcher's table—you know, like organs, entrails, and glands—tongue was originally just another protein source, the result of the no-waste philosophy of necessity practiced by ancient cultures. As tastes changed and certain beef cuts rose to greater popularity than others, tongue, like brisket, became an oft-neglected cut of meat. The idea of tongue freaks a lot of people out to this day (I personally was appalled when my father told me, at the tender age of six, that my favorite deli sandwich was actually a cow's tongue), and the sight of the massive, grey muscle before it's prepared is, well, terrifying, but you will still find it in most Jewish delis. Tongue is typically pickled whole for a few weeks, braised, peeled, and sliced thin, yielding supersoft, mild, velvety meat.
If foie gras torchon is the refined, upmarket version of pâté, chopped liver is its rough, down-country cousin. Geese and chickens deposit almost all of their fat into their livers, which 11th century northern French and Alsatian Jews started rendering into schmaltz, a form of spreadable, clarified fat used when Jews needed something like butter for a meat meal, which would be unkosher. Soon, they realized the liver as a whole was delicious to eat, too. Instead of a sanitized, geometric square of paste, chopped liver (nowadays, usually from chicken) is a true chunky spread, flecked with bits of onion and hard-boiled egg. If you love that fatty organ flavor, you can get two heaping scoops of chopped liver on rye—and if you're really lucky, your deli will even give it to you as a quick schmear on top of your favorite sliced meat.
Claims to the invention of the roast beef sandwich and variations on its ingredient makeup come from many corners of the world, but for the Jewish deli, the story is pretty simple. As Jews started working in the cattle trade in the Middle Ages, beef became a primary meat source and, consequently, Jewish cuisine and Jewish holidays are replete with traditional slow-roasted beef dishes. Kosher delis use the silver tip roast, a shoulder cut, and kosher-style delis may opt for a round cut from the cow's hindquarters, like top round or eye of round. These kinds of lean cuts are preferable, as deli roast beef is served cold (and cold, solidified fat is unappetizing), but as a result, they must be roasted extra rare to keep them juicy, with just a hint of browning on the outside. The common way to order a roast beef sandwich in a deli eschews the classic swish of mustard in favor of Russian dressing and coleslaw, lending even more moisture to the chewy cut, or a kicky grated horseradish spread.
Turkey, one of the New World's greatest culinary exports, didn't reach Europe until the 1500s, though Native Americans had been eating it since the turn of the first millennium. It didn't take long until everyone in Europe was enjoying turkey, and it was quickly deemed kosher by the Jewish authorities. When European colonists arrived on the shores of New England, they were ecstatic to find wild turkey running around that they could hunt. The first American Jewish cookbook, Jewish Cookery, published in 1871 in Philadelphia, featured a roasted whole turkey as its favorite poultry dish. The sandwich may conceivably have come about as just a convenient vehicle for leftovers.
Nowadays, it isn't the United States that consumes the most turkey, but Israel! In a familiar-sounding story, Israel started as such a poor country in the '40s that it could not afford to import beef, and, at the same time, most of the citizens didn't have refrigerators—so they turned to preserved poultry. Turkey is a hardier meat than chicken, and Israelis discovered it made great pastrami. Today, Israelis enjoy 20 more pounds of turkey per year than Americans do, mostly as shawarma and schnitzel, but there is, ironically, no Jewish deli culture in Israel—the roast turkey sandwich (made from freshly roasted meat, not preserved) is classic American cuisine. On white bread it conjures Thanksgiving, harvest, November—but on rye it's all Jewish comfort.
Mustard Versus Russian Dressing
Mustard was cultivated and used as both a spice and medicinal remedy, in the form of crushed seeds, by the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Greeks. The hardy plant grows in all kinds of climates and soils without needing much attention, and was, as a result, the everyman's spice on almost every continent, until cheap Indian peppercorns flooded the market in the 1700s and the era of salt and pepper began.
Russian dressing, on the other hand, was concocted in New Hampshire about a hundred years ago, and rode into the Jewish deli on the equally untraditional (and unkosher, but indeed Jewish-born) Reuben sandwich. It's been said more than once that Russian dressing, an emulsion of mayonnaise, ketchup, and Worcestershire or chili sauce, has finally "lost" to its more commercial cousin, Thousand Island dressing, but Russian dressing still sits proudly on the deli table, the only form of mayonnaise spread ever allowed on the sandwiches. Mayonnaise, because it contains eggs, is "kosher parve," a sort of neutral dietary designation meaning it can be served with milk or meat. You really should be using mustard (hey, if it's good enough for God, it's good enough for you), but Russian dressing is now a perfectly acceptable alternative.
Half-Sour Versus Full-Sour Pickle
Before the dawn of refrigeration, the timeframe of edibility for fresh produce was even shorter than that of meat, but people needed nutrients beyond grains, dried legumes, and root vegetables, not only in the winter months but also in periods of drought. Enter the pickle. Most cultures were already using a salt and vinegar brine to extend the life of their vegetables, but the Chinese were practicing lacto-fermentation, a more effective preservation method that requires only salt and heat, in which the vegetable's native bacteria feed off of its sugars, producing acids that kill harmful organisms. The Turkish nomads of Mongolia walked this method west to Europe in the 16th century (the cucumber, from India, had arrived about a hundred years prior), where Jews eagerly adopted it—vinegar was most commonly made from wine, which was expensive, and lacto-fermentation required no vinegar.
You'll find at least two types of pickles at a Jewish deli: the faint green full sour, completely lacto-fermented for at least three weeks, and the brighter green, partially fermented half sour. Deli-goers may vehemently prefer one to the other, but, in the end, a sandwich needs a pickle! This is backed by science: when eating a deli sandwich, the taste buds become coated in fat and swamped with spices, and the acidic pickle cuts through it all to brighten the palate.
Coleslaw Versus Health Salad
Another sneaky vehicle for mayonnaise, though not technically a spread, is coleslaw. Every deli sandwich will come with a side of coleslaw, if it's not already waiting for you on the table when you arrive. For this, we have Dutch immigrants to thank: the Dutch grew cabbage along the Hudson River, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and used it to make koosla (from "kool," or cabbage, and "sla," or salad), with melted butter and vinegar. Mayonnaise was added after its invention in the 18th century and remains a major coleslaw component to this day, but, as mayonnaise is one of the most polarizing ingredients in the world, some delis also serve "health salad," a cabbage slaw made without mayonnaise and, occasionally, with the addition of extra carrots and peppers. With health salad, the pickled, vinegar flavor is more prominent, and unlike coleslaw, health salad gets better (crunchier, zestier) with age.
After you've chosen your favorite meat, after you've faced the moral dilemma of whether or not to use Russian dressing, after you've picked a pickle, you're finally off the hook, for there is only one bread: rye. Rye is sturdy enough to handle a four-inch-thick mound of meat—much better than soft white or wheat bread ever could—and the slightly sour taste provides a foil to fatty meat in a similar manner to the pickle. For much of history the rye plant was considered a pesky weed that would grow anywhere and everywhere, which only northern Europeans and Russians considered beneficial in their inhospitably cold climates.
Rye seeded itself throughout the wheat fields of northern Europe and farmers ended up harvesting and milling the wheat and rye together to create a multi-grain flour. Pure wheat flour was expensive, used only on special occasions—many Jews saved up their money so they could bake a 100% wheat challah on Saturdays. For the rest of the week, they turned to rye bread. Though there are dozens of variations on rye bread from all over the European continent, American Jewish rye is a direct descendant of standard Polish rye, typically light in color and studded with caraway seeds (though delis often offer bread without caraway, known as "unseeded").
The Jewish Deli Today
As entrenched in convention and antiquated custom as the Jewish deli is, it has to constantly balance familiarity with changing tastes. Some delis confront the market by putting a modern spin on traditional dishes (think gochujang-lox cream cheese, chicken schnitzel BLT, smoked whitefish chowder), while others, like the Kosher Nosh, ride the ebb and flow of their customers' needs with an unmistakably Jewish combination of practicality and blasé (e.g. after centuries of persecution, it doesn't really bother them if no one wants to buy stuffed veal anymore).
"Your grandparents and my parents, they're not here, they're in the cemetery," Avi shrugs. "The next generation still eats deli, but then comes your generation and their kids—they're coming back to their roots, but they want a lot of things healthy, so we make salads." He's unconcerned. The desire for comfort and nostalgia is strong enough to keep even people who have fled the suburbs coming back to him: "Because we catered their affair, they want their children to have the same. So we go, we even shlep to Brooklyn. Fad, not fad, it doesn't really matter. I still have the strength, so I'm still working." Tradition is the beating heart of the deli, where great-grandmother's recipes are served to her great-grandchildren—and with "a little bit of luck, a lot of knowledge," proposes Avi, "maybe a lot of luck and very little knowledge," our great-grandchildren, Jew and non-Jew alike, will congregate, joyfully, over pastrami and pickles, too.