Academic journal article American Studies

PASTRAMI ON RYE: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

Academic journal article American Studies

PASTRAMI ON RYE: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

Article excerpt

PASTRAMI ON RYE: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. By Ted Merwin. New York: New York University Press. 2015.

While others have written about Jewish foodways, including Hasia R. Diner, Joan Nathan, and Jenna Weissman Joselit, Ted Merwin's Pastrami on Rye represents the first full-length treatment of the Jewish delicatessen. He deftly describes the trajectory of this American institution, from "delicatessen store" to delis, and as time went on, its decline. Geographically, we travel from New York's East Side to Broadway then nationwide. Jewish immigrants, like others, refashioned their culinary identity in a land of abundance. He also chronicles how other foods and cuisines entered the Jewish diet. Fascinating, humorous, and written with love for his topic, this is well worth reading.

Of course, delis never had an all-Jewish clientele-we are not talking about the Chosen Peppers. I question Merwin's contention that delis played the role of secular synagogues (85-90). If the definition hinges upon groups of people congregating on a regular basis, why not equate regular mah jongg games with Temple Sisterhoods? Or halal markets with mosques?

Additionally, Merwin's argument making a connection among the erotic, the exotic, and the deli rests upon thin evidence, mostly cinematic. He confuses the Yiddish word "ongeshtupt" (9)-"stuffed," as in a sack or a sandwich-with the sexual vulgarism "geshtupt." The latter is not the same as its decidedly non-Jewish equivalent, "porked."

Throughout, Merwin injects interesting factoids: "blue laws" dated back to Colonial times, receiving their name from the color paper upon which they were written (41); Sephardic Jews probably invented the quintessentially English "fish and chips"-Thomas Jefferson noted consuming "fish fried in the Jewish fashion. …

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