I'll Have What She's Having!
A trip to the New-York Historical Society's Jewish deli exhibit and the latest NYC deli, S&P.
That’s right! This drop is all about delis and the Jews that made them. Deli culture is so ingrained in our society, whether it’s featured in film or TV, for comfort food, or used as a gathering space to schmooze over bowls of hot soup.
I went a couple of weeks ago to the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit with my cousin and his wife. It’s a small exhibit that features the historical aspect of Ashkenazi flavors, everything from corned beef to rugelach. It pays homage to classic delicatessens from Canter’s to Katz’s and teaches Yiddish words from fakakhta to schlock. It also plays clips from famous deli scenes including “When Harry Met Sally” and “Seinfeld” (chocolate babka, anyone?). But most of all, it made me appreciate my culture and it was fun to share a Jewish moment with family.
The Jewish deli is more than a tasty bagel and a fun-sounding Yiddishism, though. For Jewish immigrants in the 19th century, it was a way of life. Before delis were sit-down restaurants, they were pushcarts on the Lower East Side, where Eastern European immigrants would earn a living making and selling food that represented their culture. After World War II there were thousands of delis in NYC alone, where survivor immigrants would congregate and be with their people. It was often where they felt most at home if they didn’t go to shul, to speak the same language which was often Yiddish, and share a kosher meal.
Speaking of my people, I asked my cousin, Nick, what he thought about the exhibit and if he learned anything neat from it. He said:
“Being with family while visiting this exhibit was extra special. Because all my memories from visiting the Jewish delis with my grandparents flooded back to me and being with a cousin was great because I know you had your own memories of Jewish delis with your grandparents. That was a cool experience that linked us together in a special way.
I learned that Jewish delis were incredibly popular back in the days, which I knew, but to see the amount during their heyday was crazy to consider. It made me wonder what it must have felt like to have Jewish delis on so many corners, and what our own grandparents must have felt and experienced when visiting them all. It made me wish I had asked more questions to them about which delis meant the most to them and what sorts of exciting stories and moments they had inside of the delis. Maybe some dates and ideas got sparked there which helped alter their lives forever.
It made me remember that my grandmother used to order tongue at the deli, and how much I thought that was crazy! So lots of wonderful memories rushing back to me about how great they were and how much my childhood was in some part tied up in the food that these delis helped share with millions around the country. It’s sad to think that they are disappearing so quickly, compared to other types of foods that continue to proliferate quickly.”
Today there are about 20 classic, old-school delis in the city. The culture is ebbing while the prices are rising. It’s imperative that the dining industry preserves this way of life that was once the beating heart of the city. It doesn’t count if it’s a diner that happens to have matzo ball soup on the menu. I won’t stand for that.
The good news is I got to lunch at S&P, the latest deli to enter the NYC scene but is actually a revival of Eisenberg’s, one of the last old-school lunch counters that closed a couple of years ago (and was owned by Holocaust survivors at one point!). It wasn’t the best pastrami I’ve ever had, but it was one of the better egg creams I’ve ever had and the interior is quite fun. I feel like the place is going for more trendy than old school but it’s a tasty experience nonetheless. Either way, I’m going back for one of those milkshakes and the breakfast called The Lil’ Shonda.
What about you? What’s your fav deli and what does it mean to you? And more importantly, what’s your go-to meal? Also, if anyone wants to contribute something from their Jewish culture that’s not Ashkenazi, please write in! I’d love to feature you. Shabbat Shalom xx