New York Style Delis
In the last EXPLORE article, I went into the delicatessen’s origins in Central Europe and how that culture is alive and strong here in America with the Polish and Russian delis all over the country. Now we explore the change many of these delis undertook when they reached New York City, and how the grocery store aspect disappeared and turned the New York Deli into a cultural landmark of America. I use the term “New York Style Deli” simply because New York City is where this type of establishment originated, despite that you can find these particular delis all over the world.
Over the late 1800s to the early 1900s, we saw a mass migration of immigrants to the US from all over Europe. The Irish came in droves due to the famine, as well as Polish, Russians, and Germans. A large percentage of the Central European immigrants were Jewish, seeking a better life and a fresh start from what has been some levels of prejudice in their old lands. With the Jews came many of their customs and traditions, and their kosher dietary code.
As the 20th century got rolling, America’s cities grew from urban sprawls of tenements to streets and buildings, and the immigrants aged and had their own children. With a new generation the village mentality of the old world changed to the city thinking of the modern world, and thus the practices of food evolved with it. While many Jewish families were not as willing (or had the time and money) to pickle their own corned beef, a demand for the product still existed. The delis answered the call as grocery stores also offering seating and dining for those wanting to eat on the premesis.
Time passed, and the grocery store element of the New York Deli slowly vanished away, with the restaurant/diner element growing in popularity. These delis went beyond just a place to get good corned beef and other kosher delicacies. They became the nerve centers of many Jewish communities…their “town square” in many ways.
Today, the New York Style Deli is its own entity…and unfortunately dying as a regular spot in urban areas. Part of the research I did came from David Sax’s Save The Deli. According to Sax’s interviews, the economics of affordable monstrous-sized meat sandwiches simply doesn’t do well for the business owner in the long run. Many establishments all over the country that opened in the mid-1900s and grew to be institutions are vanishing, one by one. However, I don’t believe they will become extinct. If anything, the New York Style Deli has evolved into a specialty shop. Maybe the local corner spot your parents went to won’t exist anymore, but they do exist in tourist locations and more upscale neighborhoods as “finer” sandwich shops.
For my own exploration, I visited three of Chicago’s more famous New York Style Delis. I have been to delis in New York, but I’ll confess it was over ten years ago and I needed to get re-oriented with the cuisine. Manny’s Deli is probably the most famous of Chicago delis, as even David Sax focused on it in his book. They run themselves like a cafeteria with all the traditional favorites, serving fresh cut meat and sandwiches made to order.
For a more New York feel, I went to The Bagel, which looks like a restored restaurant from the 1920s. Very clean and very nice, with great Matzo Ball soup and sandwiches. The Bagel operates more like a restaurant than Manny’s cafeteria style. For the finale, I took Stephanie over to Ashkenaz Deli near downtown. This place was a very much “in between” Manny’s and Bagel. You can easily get meats and items to go in a true deli fashion, or eat in if you choose. I liked the freshly baked products and variety of traditional Jewish deli items for me to try.
So if you walk into a New York Style Deli in your neck of the woods, or just happen to get to Chicago or New York, here’s a selection of items you simply must try. I do forewarn they are not for the health or calorie conscious:
Corned Beef: This is the cornerstone of the New York Style Deli. Pickled beef brisket slow cooked and kept in steam for a moist, tender texture that simply melts in your mouth. Get it hot on rye with mustard. Excellent.
Pastrami: You might have bought some pastrami in a grocery store, but it’s night and day when you get it in a New York Style Deli. If you don’t know, Pastrami is beef brisket that is pickled like corned beef, but also seasoned and smoked, then kept moist in steam. Again I suggest rye with mustard. Heaven.
The Rueben: The result of non-Jewish customers. Corned beef with Swiss cheese and Russian salad dressing (or Thousand Island) and placed on rye. Many places will grill the sandwich like a grilled cheese or Panini.
Potato Pancakes: I was turned on to how Manny’s would include a potato pancake with every sandwich. Sometimes called Latkes, they are shredded potato formed into patties, and fried in oil in a cast-iron pan. Crispy and delicious.
Matzo Ball Soup: From the outsider’s view, it looks like chicken broth with a baseball-sized dumpling in it. I will say it’s delicious regardless. If you see a soup with smaller matzo balls (and other ingredients), then I probably would be skeptical. I’m more a fan of the traditional soup. Great way to start off your meal.
Kugel: When I first saw this, I thought it was a savory dish, like a Jewish version of a lasagna. I was very wrong. It’s a sweet casserole made with apples and egg noodles. Kind of a thick apple pie of sorts.
Knish: My brother became a big fan of knishes when we went to Manhattan. He would literally buy them from street merchants selling them off carts and hit them with yellow mustard. Looked like a big French fry to me. A knish is a filling (potato, spinach, or corned beef) covered in dough, and either baked, grilled, or deep-fried. I have heard now of more varieties in both sweet and savory flavors.
Kishke: It’s a Jewish sausage stuffed with flour or matzo meal, goose fat, and spices. Usually served with gravy. I would equate this sausage to be similar to White Pudding from the UK. A blood sausage without the blood.
Blintzes: I could have mentioned this in the Central European deli article, but I felt the blintz deserved its place here. A light crepe rolled up with a mixture of sweetened cheeses and/or fruits, then fried up and served hot. I’m eventually going to post my father’s recipe for blintzes. That is if you trust a Greek making them.
I want to give credit to David Sax for his book Save The Deli. It was a great resource for the history and origins of both Central European and New York Style Delis. If you have the time, check it out. If you’re strapped for cash, then check your public library. For more information, head over to savethedeli.com.
There’s more to come. Not just more variations of delis, but patisseries, and other specialty venues of cuisine that aren’t your typical spaces. Stay tuned.