(My 1500 word mid-course essay from Food and the City last semester. I’ve removed the in-line references for readability. The requirements for the assignment are noted in the comments.)
This essay places Katz’s Delicatessen in its historical context and explores the transformative role of Jewish delicatessens in shaping American foodways. In the first half, I trace the development of these delicatessens to a period of immigration in the late-19th and early-20th centuries and look at the origins of the pastrami sandwich. I discuss the mainstreaming of Jewish delicatessens and the reasons for their subsequent decline. In the second half, I look at Katz’s itself, with an overview of key moments in Katz’s history and an exploration of the characteristics that make Katz’s such a quintessential Jewish delicatessen. Finally, I look briefly at the recent revival of delicatessens, the so-called ‘third wave’ or ‘nouveau delicatessens.’
More than two million Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews arrived on New York’s shores between 1880 and 1920. They came from the area that is now Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova, and Ukraine, fleeing pogroms in the Russian Empire triggered by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. These Jews displaced the previous large wave of immigrants, Germans, who began arriving in the 1840s.
New York in 1855 had the third largest German population of any city in the world, behind Berlin and Vienna. German immigrants introduced delicatessens to America. Jewish immigrants adapted delicatessens to conform to Jewish dietary laws and elevated ‘deli’ to the status of an iconic food of New York.
Each successive wave of immigrants faced economic marginalisation and racism. Because of this discrimination, each group of migrants found few business opportunities outside of their own communities. Since catering required little capital investment and recruiting was done through informal and family channels, ethnic restaurants were a logical outgrowth of these waves of immigration.
Evolution and transformation
Immigrant foodways informed and were transformed by general American culture. The culinary contributions of Jewish immigrants included dark rye breads and the complex kosher dishes that were the stock-in-trade of the original Jewish delicatessens. Americans of all kinds were making corned beef long before Yiddish Jews showed up. The Yiddish Jews innovation was to create pastrami by flavouring and smoking corned beef. The basic recipe (for mutton or goose breast) came from parts of south-eastern Europe (Romania, Bessarabia, Moldavia) that had been ruled by Turks. One account from 1899 tells us cafes and saloons sold food, “bean soup, borscht, cold fish, Russian dishes, Jewish dishes, and something pronounced samitch.” Another, from 1920, describes a sandwich as, “a new experience, for eating without dirtying the hands- from a deli.”
The Jewish delicatessen went through a process of transformation during the twentieth century. What began as a “bare-bones schlacht (butcher) store that sold only salamis and other cured meats” led to strictly kosher delicatessens, which sold other prepared foods and had a seating area. Eventually, kosher-style delicatessens, where you could find roast beef (a non-kosher cut), Reuben sandwiches (dairy and meat together, not kosher), or sometimes even ham (not kosher), became the norm.
Harry Levine notes that the huge pastrami sandwiches, typical of Jewish delicatessens, were unknown to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. They were invented in New York, brought about by a convergence of new and traditional foodways, and a plentiful supply of meat.
As Jewish food joined the mainstream, ‘deli’ became an iconic food of New York, alongside other foods with Jewish connections: bagels, knishes, cheesecake, egg creams, and frankfurters. As Joan Nathan noted in a New York Times article on October 6, 2009, there were at least 1,500 kosher and kosher-style delicatessens in New York by the 1930s. These little delicatessens started to face competition in the 1950s from larger markets and supermarkets, as well as competing foods, such as pizza.
With mainstreaming, curing deli meats evolved into industrial processes. Arthur Hertzberg, a kosher food aficionado, remembers when the delicatessens of the Lower East Side each cured their own meats. ‘Now you get two-week old corned beef, supermarket corned beef and corned beef and cheese- utter desecrations of Jewish soul food.’
As their fortunes grew, the Jews left the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side. Later generations eschewed these ‘ethnic’ foods of their forebears. With assimilation, delis in New York became a dying breed. David Sax notes in an article in The Atlantic on October 1, 2009, that when he was researching his book in the early 2000s, it was originally to be titled The Death of the Deli. Why did Katz’s survive where others failed? Looked at through a simple economic lens, one of the reasons would be because they own the building, and thus their operating costs were lower than competitors, allowing them to weather the 1950s when New York was experiencing white flight to the mid-1970s when the city neared bankruptcy.
Katz’s Delicatessen, established in 1888, as either “Iceland Brothers”, according to Katz’s website, or “Kostagin’s” was located on the southeast corner of Ludlow and Houston Streets. Houston Street was a major street within the one square mile ghetto known as the “Jewish Lower East Side”. In 1903, Willy Katz joined the enterprise. Willy’s cousin Benny bought out the other partners in 1910 and the venture was renamed Katz’s Delicatessen. In 1917, their landsman (someone from the same village) Harry Tarowsky bought into the business. That same year, the construction of the subway system necessitated a move to the other side of Ludlow Street.
During World War II, when the three sons of the owners were serving in the armed forces, Katz’s adopted the slogan “Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army” which was actually coined by another deli man, Louis G. Schwartz of the Sixth Avenue Deli. Katz’s continues this tradition, shipping salamis to military addresses in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A storefront facade was added between 1946 and 1949 and the entrance moved from the Ludlow Street side to the corner. Since then, Katz’s has remained relatively unchanged. According to Katz’s website, their corned beef and pastrami is cured using a slower traditional method which can take up to 30 days. This is one of the two key ingredients to a good delicatessen, according to Sax.
Katz’s was kept in the Katz and Tarowsky families until the mid-1980s when the owners realised they had no immediate offspring to pass the business to. A long-time friend, Martin Dell, along with his son and son-in-law bought into the partnership in 1988. The business continues to be family-run, the other key ingredient for success, according to Sax.
Delicatessens are social gathering places. Katz’s introduced and still uses a ticket system, in which foods consumed are marked off and the total is later tallied by the cashier situated near the exit. In this way customers can linger, socialise, and have more helpings of food without having to handle money each time. An important part of the ambience is the witty banter with the counter men. This tradition continues as well, though most of the counter men today are from the Dominican Republic, reflecting the shifting trends in immigration.
Other traces of the area’s Jewish history exist. One block west on Houston Street, Russ & Daughters (est. 1914), an appetising store, is another survivor. Niki Russ Federman, the fourth generation owner says, “I love when people walk into our store and say, ‘I remember coming here fifty years ago!’ The truth is, the shop doesn’t look all that different. In a place like New York, where everything is changing all the time, to have a place where you can feel that continuity is really special. For many people, these foods represent what it means to be from New York, and to be Jewish in New York.”
Although people increasingly prefer lighter and healthier options when eating, Katz’s remains popular. It is the vanguard of American Jewish cuisine and the wellspring of tradition. Customers who come here remember dining at Katz’s with their grandparents. Others come to re-connect with their Jewish heritage. Many others may only know Katz’s from the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally and want to “have what she’s having.” James Barron, in an article in The New York Times on May 14, 2013 reported that the restaurant goes through 20,000 pounds (9000 kg) of meat in a typical week.
Harry Levine likes “Katz’s because it’s so archaic, so huge, so busy, and because some of the old German influences remain visible. I like that frankfurters and salami are still a big deal at Katz’s.” He calls it “the great mother of all sit-down delis. Ancient and fabulous.”
Today, a third wave of delis is sprouting up in unlikely locations like Berkeley and Portland, as well as overseas (Mogg and Melzer’s in Berlin). The restaurants of this ‘nouveau deli’ movement often take a local, sustainable, artisanal approach, the buzzwords of the day, to how they prepare food, ironically exactly how it was done in the old days. While these new restaurateurs don’t explicitly model themselves after Katz’s, there is a tremendous reverence for this great temple of American Jewish gastronomy. Katz’s serves as the benchmark for, and a bridge of continuity between the origins of this style of food, and its current re-interpretations.
Katz’s Delicatessen, which turned 125 this year, is the only surviving example of the Jewish delicatessen from the era of massive Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side. It is an important link to the origins of this style of food and has maintained its traditions throughout the evolution and mainstreaming of Jewish delicatessens. Katz’s serves as an inspiration and a benchmark for the current revival movement in Jewish delicatessens.
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