Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. By Ted Merwin. New York: New York University Press, 2015. xvii + 245 pp.
In Pastrami on Rye, Ted Merwin traces the rise and fall of the delicatessen in American Jewish life and culture. The delicatessen reached its peak not with the first generation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but with their children. Between 1920 and 1960, the delicatessen offered a bridge between immigrants and their children and between Jews and the mainstream. It also served as a "third place" (neither work nor home) for Jewish communities, serving food that was rich and traditional, if not always strictly kosher. Eating deli food was, as Merwin says, "a secular rather than a religious way of being Jewish" (6). It was also closely linked to New York City, even as delis sprouted in Jewish communities throughout the nation.
One of Merwin's most useful contributions is to correct the timing of delicatessen's entry into American life. Although Eastern European Jewish communities had traditions of pickled, cured, smoked, and salted meats (including pastrami, a Turkish and Romanian delicacy, whose origin is traced to Central Asian horsemen who pressed salted raw beef between horse and saddle to cure it), most Jews in Europe were too poor to consume much. The first delicatessens in New York were German delis, selling fine imported groceries and delicacies like sausages and smoked goose. Jewish delis actually arose from the numerous New York kosher butcher shops, which began selling prepared foods, cooked meats, and quick snacks like knishes. But Merwin argues that the first generation of Eastern European immigrants bought little ready-to-eat deli food since it was quite expensive, especially the meats, and immigrant women resisted take-out food as a dereliction of their home cooking duties.
Merwin uses the records of delicatessen owners and kosher meatpackers to tell his story. Kosher meat was a big business, one whose profitability led naturally to crime and corruption. It was tempting for meat suppliers to replace expensive kosher meat with its cheaper non-kosher counterpart, with customers none the wiser. The inability to discern kosher from non-kosher meat, except by guarantee, points to the fundamental difficulty. Jews who were most insistent on kashrut were not inclined to eat out much. Delis became central to American Jewish life when the second generation became more flexible in dietary matters, willing to...