Among the many things that make New York special, it is the city’s history that really set it apart from anywhere else in the United States. A true melting pot, New York was the first stop for many immigrants coming to America, where they brought new ideas, traditions and ways of doing business.
One of the most influential new additions to the New York City mosaic was the neighborhood deli. These were welcoming places where you could grab a cup of coffee (John Sherman at Extra Crispy swears delis are still the best place to get caffeinated in the city), grab a few essentials or order a pastrami sandwich. And just like the neighborhoods and boroughs of New York, every neighborhood deli is different.
Although it may seem like an over simplification of the early forces shaping of one of the world’s largest cities, a great deal of what New York is today came from the introduction of the neighborhood deli.
Below, we will explore how New York City shaped this particular community institution — and how the deli in turn shaped the city as it grew.
Deli — from the German word “delikatessen,” a plural word meaning “delicacy, fine food,” first recorded in American English in 1889 and later shortened to “deli” — was more than just a market or a place to grab a bite to eat. It’s an institution that has long provided a haven and sense of community for people whose own communities were being marginalized.
Throughout the early 20th Century, the deli was a place where many Jewish immigrants went to socialize because prevailing of anti-Semitic attitudes. The deli was especially important to the children of Jewish immigrants because it provided a safe and supportive place where they could learn about their culture and still carve new American identities.
There were two types of Jewish delis: the kosher deli and the kosher-style deli (i.e. a deli that didn’t necessarily follow kosher food preparation practices). The kosher deli emerged as a symbol of cultural continuity and tradition. The kosher-style deli became a vehicle through which Jewish immigrants entered mainstream American society.
According to historian, Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, “By the 1930s, the kosher delicatessen in particular became ubiquitous in the outer boroughs of New York, while the kosher-style delicatessen became synonymous with the showbiz culture of Manhattan … the Jewish delicatessen essentially began in New York and became emblematic of both New York and Jewish life.”
The Jewish deli showcased a wide variety of cured meats alongside dumplings, knishes and other specialties inspired by many of those immigrants’ Central and Eastern European roots. This did more than just provide a taste of home. The delicious overstuffed, handheld foods attracted members of other communities. The deli became a bridge that helped neighbors overcome prejudices and stereotypes by providing a judgment-free zone where people of all cultures, ethnicities and faiths could enjoy a meal.
Thus, the deli became a building block for future peace in various neighborhoods across the city. As New York’s neighborhoods continued to diversify, dishes such as Austrian veal and french fries started to make their way onto the menu. Salami from Italy, sausages from Germany and bagels from Poland were sold side-by-side. This was the melting pot playing out on menus across the city.
Further, the deli’s evolution began to reflect an understanding of what helps a business succeed in a busy city such as New York: An ability to adhere to the changing needs of its customers. This ability to adapt to the needs of the neighborhood kept these establishments thriving for decades. That malleability laid the foundation for what delis would become most known for — acting as the heart of many New York City communities.
As more and more families continued to call New York City home, delis emerged as a general meeting place. Here, the size of the city shrank down to the community level, and each establishment took on the personalities of the people from the neighborhood.
By the 1960s, the deli had become an American institution. Delis “began serving more turkey than either corned beef or pastrami,” Merwin writes in the New York Post. In other words, the deli became a showcase of all the things New Yorkers have in common.
Beyond providing a supportive and nurturing space for Jewish communities in New York, the deli catered to the Big Apple’s star-studded showbiz industry.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New York was rapidly becoming more urban and industrial. The stage was set for delis to thrive, but it wasn’t until a baker from St. Louis, Gustav Papendick, discovered a way to slice and package bread that sandwiches became a part of daily life. According to food writer Tori Avey, Papendick’s invention gave the sandwich a new, wider audience.
Sandwiches were all the rage in the Jazz Age because of their novelty and because they reached across class lines. Rich or poor, everyone loves a good sandwich.
The explosive popularity of the sandwich, combined with the rise of urbanization and the increased desire for portability and convenience, led to the rise of the deli in areas like the Theater District. The Stage Deli opened in 1935, and The Carnegie Deli opened in 1937.
Delis like The Carnegie emerged as places to rub elbows with actors, directors and other celebrities. According to NPR’s Joel Rose, this played an important role in forging Jewish-American identities throughout the 20th Century.
“The earliest delis were run by Germans and Alsatians, not all of them Jewish,” writes Robert Sietsema at New York Eater. “The Alsatians were responsible for the charcuterie aspects of the menu, including pickled tongue and the sauerkraut that was heaped on such sausages as knoblewurst, garlicwurst, and the iconic frankfurter, whose name suggests an origin in Frankfurt, Germany.”
So, over the generations, the waves of immigration New York experienced, plus the changing tastes of people in various communities, all influenced what delis would serve. That’s how we get from pickled tongue and sauerkraut to turkey sandwiches.
Take the corned beef sandwich, a handheld deli classic that seems to defy the laws of physics. The popularity of this delicious cured meat in the US can be traced back to the turn of the 20th Century, when Irish and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were two of the largest inbound populations to the city.
“Settling in the same overcrowded urban neighborhoods, the two populations formed a strong bond that encouraged the mixing of cultures,” Matt Blitz and Food & Wine writes. “Due to the Jewish religion’s dietary restrictions, an influx of kosher butchers made its way into New York’s Irish/Jewish neighborhoods. So, the Irish often bought their meat from kosher butchers.”
Today, the corned beef sandwich is enjoyed in delis, diners and pubs throughout the city and the country as a whole. Its Irish roots peppered by spicy mustard and delicious rye bread or served with crispy hash, corned beef continues to endure and earn a place in New Yorkers’ hearts and stomachs.
This type of evolution continues to play out today, too, as the staples of any deli’s menu adapt to modern tastes. The pastrami on rye, for example, is an iconic New York dish. But who’s to say subsequent generations can’t tweak that recipe a little?
Bon Appétit’s Julia Kramer points to Harry & Ida’s Meat and Supply Co. in the East Village as an example of a modern sandwich shop that’s found success by breathing new life into old recipes. Kramer specifically calls out Harry & Ida’s Pops Pastrami (the ingredients: “buttermilk-fermented cucumber kraut, caraway, cracked rye berry, anchovy mustard, fresh dill”) as a must-try dish.
The deli continues to leave a profound mark on American life. Whereas certain institutions like the diner have steadily vanished, the deli has continued to evolve.
Today, immigrants are coming from an even greater number of countries to the United States for the first time. Like the European immigrants of the 19th Century, they too are clustering into neighborhoods where they can openly practice their cultural norms and maintain a connection to the homes they left behind.
Take the bodega, which has both a grocery and a social function in many neighborhoods. Much like the Jewish delis of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the bodega connects Spanish-speaking New Yorkers from a variety of Latin American backgrounds. Today, there are more than 13,000 such establishments in the city, Madison Gray at Time reports, “many still owned by Puerto Rican and Dominican retailers.”
As delis did before, bodegas provide a supportive and nurturing place where immigrants and their children can speak their native tongues alongside English. They function as a physical space where food, community and commerce come together to bridge cultural differences. The same is true for halal grocers, Korean markets and even food trucks, all of which are the deli’s spiritual successors.
These businesses facilitate cross-cultural interactions — whether that’s a Syrian immigrant connecting with life-long New Yorkers, Korean immigrants connecting with puertoriqueños, or any connection across any cultures. And as neighborhoods become more diverse and less defined by any specific ethnicity, religion or culture, these connections form the building blocks of neighborhood and community in New York.
Like the deli, eventually all of these sites may similarly serve as someone’s symbol of success, as gateway to the American Dream and neighborhood hubs that bridge the differences people may have.
After all, what can bring people together better than great food?
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