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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
David Smith in Washington

‘No pickles? No deli’: archetypal American ‘secular Jewish space’ gains due regard

Katz’s Delicatessen storefront in Manhattan.
Katz’s Delicatessen is arguably the most famous deli in the US, as much for its pastrami on rye as for Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm. Photograph: PSL Images/Alamy

Cate Thurston remembers the moment her team settled on what to call an exhibition about Jewish delis in America. “We kind of just said it as a joke,” the co-curator says. “It was a former colleague who said, ‘You could call it this,’ and we all had a laugh. And then we thought, wait, no, we could call it that!”

The title they chose: I’ll Have What She’s Having.

Comedy fans will recognise it as the punchline from arguably the most famous deli scene in film history: Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in front of Billy Crystal, provoking wide-eyed stares from patrons and staff. An older woman, played by director Rob Reiner’s mother, remarks to a waitress: “I’ll have what she’s having.”

The clip is among several playing in a loop in the exhibition, organised by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which opened this week at the Capital Jewish Museum in Washington. It is a celebration of the delicatessen – a German word that loosely translates to “a place to find delicious things to eat” – as the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jewish life.

Speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles, Thurston offered her own definition: “The classic deli is loud. We’ve now blended kosher and non-kosher traditions: you’ll get a slice of cheesecake with your meat sandwich. But it has to have a counter, it has to have seating and it has to serve some of the traditional items – soups, sandwiches. There must be pickles. No pickles? No deli.”

Staples include towering sandwiches, bowls of matzo ball soup and rich chopped liver spread on rye. Asked how to tell the difference between a deli and a diner, Thurston replied: “If there’s a stack of pancakes, it’s not a deli.” But she admitted: “Both will have lukewarm and probably middling coffee.”

The show begins by describing the Jewish delicatessen as “fusion food” born of immigration that combined regional food traditions from across eastern and central Europe with newly available ingredients in the US. More than 2 million Jewish people made new homes in in the US between 1880 and 1924.

The emergence of delis can be traced to an influx of immigrants from the Rhineland, part of present day Germany, to New York, followed by Jews from eastern Europe and the Russian empire. They began to sell food to their communities including pickles, knishes, gefilte fish, borscht, pastrami, smoked fish, bagels, babka and rugelach, which were available under one roof for the first time.

Thurston explained: “These foods were originally sold on the street, largely to other immigrants, which is a way of earning a living and selling food that will look very familiar to people all over the world. You bring the skills you have with you to a new place, you bring your culture with you, and that’s food.

“What had been separated by thousands of miles in eastern and central Europe was now together in America, and they were incorporating New World ingredients, including an abundance of certain ingredients.”

The wave of immigration coincided with the development of industrialised meat production. “Prior to the civil war in the United States, most Americans ate pork that was grown pretty close to their house; after the civil war, you have beef readily available on tables. Well, let’s eat a giant deli sandwich: ribbons and ribbons of beef.”

Katz’s Delicatessen, founded in New York in 1888, was a bricks-and-mortar establishment at a time when most deli food was being sold from carts and barrels on the street, and is now the oldest continuously operating deli in the country. By the mid-1930s there were about 5,000 delis in New York City alone.

Others sprang up in cities such as Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Phoenix and came to reflect their local surroundings. Thurston says: “One of my favourites was Wolfie’s in Miami had cinnamon buns. That is not a traditional Jewish food and yet it reflects the tastes of the people around them.

“In the 90s, you started seeing health options on deli menus in Los Angeles and you still see them. It reflects the people who eat there. They don’t exist in isolation. There are delis in every metropolitan area in the United States.”

Delis provided a livelihood and sense of purpose for many of the 400,000 Holocaust survivors and refugees who came to the US after the second world war. They were owners, waiters, cooks and customers. The Holocaust survivor Abe Lebewohl, owner of the Second Avenue Delicatessen in New York, refused to turn away customers who were unable to pay and gave free food to homeless people and striking workers.

The mid-20th century was the deli’s golden age. Period menus from the Carnegie Delicatessen and Lindy’s Restaurant in New York’s theater district are displayed in the exhibition. Many establishments are no more, although some landmark examples remain.

There has also been a boom of artisanal delis and Jewish chefs who infuse the deli into different food cultures and traditions. Thurston comments: “It’s an interesting time for delis. The cuisine is more vibrant than ever and you’re seeing it show up in different ways, but they may be ways that are less familiar to people.”

One section, “Shifting landscapes”, looks at contemporary delis, including those where most of the clientele are not Jewish. These include David’s Brisket House in Brooklyn, which was opened in the 1960s by a Russian Jew and is now operated by a Yemeni owner and serves a largely Black community.

Delis show up again and again in film and TV, as testified by clips from likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and When Harry Met Sally at the exhibition’s – it has to be said – climax. Why? Thurston says: “One of the reasons we posit is because Hollywood and Broadway have had such a love affair with delis, you write what you know and so they end up in these creative pieces.

“Another is that for characters, delis are a secular Jewish space and if you need to demonstrate a character’s Jewish identity, this is a place you could do that without doing a deep dive. It’s a place where you can explore one’s Jewish heritage as a setting and almost as a character because the deli has its own atmosphere. But whether it’s to convey something or just because folks like it, the deli appears again and again in media.”

I’ll Have What She’s Having, which runs until 20 August, displays neon signs, menus, adverts, fixtures, historical footage and artifacts, often with a personal story attached. Thurston, who is chief curator for the Skirball Cultural Center, hopes that it prompts visitors to consider their own immigration stories.

“The things we consider uniquely American are often borne of the meetings of peoples and it’s a celebration of that,” she said. “I hope that people have fun. We all need spaces where we can both think critically and feel joy and I hope that this exhibition provides a pathway for both of those things. And I hope that people go and patronise a local restaurant after and enjoy a good sandwich.

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