Bingo 18 (Award Winner)
In 2015, Ted Merwin’s Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli won the National Jewish Book Award, which is presented by the Jewish Book Council. I neither knew that nor would have cared if I had known when I bought the book, but it’s rather convenient for a Bingo Square.
Basically, this book is as the subtitle suggests a social and cultural history of the Jewish deli in the United States starting in 1880sish NYC through nearly the present day. The book contains 4 chapters, a preface, an introduction, a conclusion, and notes/bibliography/index. This is an academic book, written by an academic, published by an academic press. It’s dense, really dense on the facts and information. I’m generally fine with that kind of style, but it’s not for everyone. Even for me, it took me a while to get through this one because it is rather difficult to read for sustained periods of time if one is not in the mood to concentrate.
The first sections cover the origins of the deli shop in NYC and how important it was to Jewish communities. Things covered include not only individual delis, but also the people who started and ran them, as well as some history on some of the crucial items associated with the delis, such as pastrami, sausages/salamis, and hot dogs. I was a little surprised there wasn’t more on certain other quintessentially Jewish foods like matzoh ball soup, but maybe that wasn’t a big seller in these places? The second part traces what happens as Jewish people leave NYC and migrate elsewhere in the US, and the delis that get started in places like Miami. Finally, non-Jews really start to discover delis which are beginning to struggle financially and need to attract other customers. From thousands of delis in NYC at the turn of the 20th century, by the beginning of the 21st, only a handful exist in the entirety of NYC. Delis also become representative of Jewishness or at least the perception of it in popular culture, like movies and tv characters (not always in positive ways).
In spite of being dense, there are a lot of little stories here of a variety of people and places. It’s kind of a pity that there wasn’t more focus on that, but there really isn’t space. Someone should do that though, tell the “based on a true story” narrative story about some of these people and places. I’d totally read that. This book is also a history of food and culture, with implications beyond the East Coast and Jewish cuisine. There are intersections mentioned but not developed (space again) with things like the development of key pieces of Americana like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (apparently designed bland on purpose to dampen promiscuity) and graham crackers. Maybe it coincides with me finding out about that History Chanel show about the parallel developments of major food brands like Hershey, Kellogg’s, Post, etc., but there seems to be an interest in the stories behind the brands and products that seem so common and mundane to us now.
In any event, I find food and culture and interesting subject, so I liked this, but again, given that this is not the easiest read, it may not be for everyone. You should still at least check it out though. You even get to learn a little bit of Yiddish.