New England Testimony
Samuel A. Persky
To Dismiss Ruth Glazer’s article on “The Jewish Delicatessen” as merely an amusing and nostalgic little essay, as I fear most readers might, would be a grave mistake.
My professional life, thus far bracketed between the reigns of Theodore and Franklin, has been devoted almost exclusively to the interests of malefactors of small wealth and bush-league economic royalists. Yet here I find myself spiritually attuned to a woman who has devoted her career to the labor movement.
Stop a while and ponder on this. If Jewish delicatessen can bring about any meeting-ground at all for two such divergent philosophies as Ruth Glazer’s and mine seem to be, what limits can one dare to place on its possibilities in this troubled world? When one thinks of the bond created between the goyim and the Jews in that little Long Island community by her father’s pastrami and her mother’s gefilte fish and potato latkes (which must have been a gourmet’s dream, but hardly to be classed as delicatessen), who is there to say that those much-feared “racial tensions” cannot be allayed if, instead of distributing educational pamphlets dedicated to the truth about the Jew, we can so manage it that every rock and rill in this land of liberty be permeated by the gracious aroma of hot corned beef and pastrami? Don’t dismiss all this too lightly. It is worthy of serious contemplation.
And why complain that delicatessen is vitaminless? Let us, instead, thank God for it. Vitamins are for drug stores. They should be taken in pills and capsules exclusively. They have no place in food. And let me tell you, if the vitamin manufacturers were dependent upon delicatessen eaters for patronage, they would starve to death (and who cares?), for nothing is so stimulating, invigorating and healthful as delicatessen. Let the doctors prescribe vitamins.
And why repeat the slanderous canard that delicatessen is bad for the digestion? Such loose, thoughtless statements can do immeasurable harm, especially coming from one who must justly be considered an authority on the basis of such obviously painstaking research and study. You say that delicatessen is bad for the digestion? Piffle!
It is a cure for digestion. Well do I remember being compelled to board an early evening train for an overnight trip. I did not want any dinner because I had indigestion. The train had no diner. I feared I might be hungry before morning, so I took with me two gigantic, luscious lox sandwiches on fresh rye bread—the kind only a first-class New York delicatessen can produce. Midnight came, and I still had both the sandwiches and the indigestion. I could not bear to waste the sandwiches so, throwing discretion to the winds, I ate them. A few minutes after I finished the last crumb, I had no more indigestion and was wishing I had more sandwiches. Please, Mrs. Glazer, be more cautious in your statements.
To really appreciate what delicatessen means, everyone should once (more often would be too cruel) be deprived of it for at least a full week. I went through that ordeal. I spent a vacation on Cape Cod. They served wonderful fish. I enjoyed it for a day, two, three. By the fourth day my zest for fish was somewhat reduced. By the fifth, I wasn’t very hungry—for fish. But I was hungry. My sleep was restless. I had nightmares. The last night (I made it my last night) I dreamed I was about to be sent to earth to be born. The angel in charge gave me the choice of being born a Gentile if I wished. He was very fair with me. He gave me a brief but graphic outline of all the many difficulties and burdens of being a Jew, and then waited for my decision. I asked: “If I am born a goy will I appreciate Jewish food—particularly delicatessen?” He was an honest angel. He replied: “To some extent—but not fully—not the finer and more delicate nuances.”
The next morning I was on my way to Boston. No more fish for me. I was headed for a delicatessen restaurant. Being a stranger did not stump me in locating my objective. On the outskirts of Boston, I feverishly looked at a telephone directory—Cohen, Levine, Bernstein, Goldberg, Greenstein, etc., etc. Selecting the street where most of these fine people were listed as living, I headed for there and in one shake of a lamb’s tail I was seated at a table, with a waiter offering me the familiar, smeared, greasy, fly-specked menu. I spurned it. I knew what I wanted. I wanted no fish. After a short but agonizing delay, the waiter covered the table with a soul-satisfying array of lox, sturgeon, white-fish, a box of salmon, and a box of sardines. No, I don’t mean a can. I mean a box. A can of sardines (or salmon) is one thing and a box tastes altogether different. Such fine judges of food as the management of New York’s Hotel Plaza serve a box of sardines—not a can. Take a look at their menu some time and see for yourself.
Please urge Mrs. Glazer not to be discouraged by the occasional note of adverse criticism that seems to have crept into my comments. I could not help it. The subject is too important and too close to my heart. She really should continue her research and writing in a serious way. Any girl who is able to retain so keen an appreciation of Jewish delicatessen despite a stretch in Hunter College, followed by a B.A. from Queens, shows qualities that should not be allowed to go to waste. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers are well enough established so that almost anybody can take care of them. Delicatessen, on the other hand, has never before this been treated with the dignity it merits. Delicatessen needs Mrs. Glazer!
The Old, Old Polo Grounds
Ruth Glazer, your lady authority on Jewish delicatessen in your March issue, leaves the impression that it is the most primitive, the “poor relation” delicatessen store that is typical of the lower East Side. She says nothing of the fact, known to millions, that the very greatest of the emporia—Katz’s on east Houston Street, and that king of them all, known to everyone on Delancey Street as the store that makes its own Rumanian pastrami and Warsaw salami—are precisely on the lower East Side.
And if one permits oneself the liberty (which was not done in my time) of including in the category of Jewish delicatessen stores those which also sell lox and serve cream and butter, and Ruth Glazer does this, then she is entirely in error when she asserts that apart from the Eastern seaboard “Nowhere else does the delicatessen exist. . . .”
The bonafide delicatessens that she says are “rumored” to be in Los Angeles are there. And for many years—I frequented it when I was in goles in 1937-38—there has been a Jewish delicatessen, as real as any in the Bronx, on the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Newton Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
And who ever fobbed off on this young lady the preposterous story that there was a time, before delicatessens served kitchen dishes, when the tips of tongues were sold “to people who had dogs, at ten cents apiece”? I go back in the trade some sixteen years before this lady, and my father before me, and there was no such time; before the tongue omelette, it was one of the more elementary skills of the expert counterman, in making a tongue sandwich, to substitute, hand moving quicker than the eye, some slices of cut-up tongue tips for the prized “center cut.” My father would have called Ruth Glazer’s father—you should excuse the expression—a shoemaker, to give it away at ten cents a tip. What was sold for ten cents apiece was the opposite end of the untrimmed tongue, namely the roots, which was known in the trade as a shlung.
But “scholars always quarrel,” and I must not labor these points. And I must resist dealing at length with the lost skills of the counterman in the days before the hegemony of slicing machines. In those days the prime skill by which a counterman was judged and his wage fixed was his ability with the knife: both speed and making thin—but substantial-looking—slices were essentials of the art. Have you any idea of the difference between a real shneider and a shlumper? The difference could amount to fifteen to twenty sandwiches in a single corned beef.
But I don’t want to quarrel. The main point I want to make I cannot blame her for not making, for I note that she was only born in 1922, and could not have known it by her experience. I refer to a profound social transformation in the life of the family and owner of the “one-man store.” Ruth Glazer thinks she is describing an old institution when she correctly says of it: “. . . every one pitches in. As soon as the youngsters of the family are old enough . . . they are pressed into service. . . . The children of the family may be well provided with clothing and food, but their home is a dark place where they go at bedtime. Their meals, their spare time, their source of parental affection, are all bound up with the store.” In reality, however, this describes an institution which in large part dates back only to World War I.
Before 1914 the “one-man store” family belonged to the élite of the Jewish communities of needle-trades workers. To be sure, the first pants-pressers and stitchers who put together a few dollars and escaped from the sweatshop fled to a not less miserable life of dingy storekeeping. But, by the turn of the century, there was a marked improvement, at least in the delicatessen and the “modern” dairy.
One reason for the change was the epic rise of the needle-trades unions, and the consequent rise in the purchasing power of the customers. Equally important, however, was the flood of unrestricted immigration, which enabled the one-man store to acquire two employees, a “boy” working in the store, and a shiksa in the house.
The “boy,” not necessarily in his ‘teens, was invariably a greener (er shtinkt noch fon shiff—“he still smells of the ship”), for in a very few years he would find a more lucrative field of employment or open his own store. He got his meals with the family, slept on a cot in the cold “front room”, and got very little money. A working day for him was seldom less than twelve hours.
The “boy” was Jewish, but the girl in the house was almost always a shiksa, Ukrainian, Polish, Byelorussian or great Russian. Unless she quarreled with the family, she stayed until she married a fellow-countryman. Here, she had the knotty problem of finding the time to meet landsleit.
Unhappily her day off was not always every week; it began after feeding and sending the children to school, and she had usually to get back before the family went to sleep. But love could find a way, and one could trundle the youngest child in a baby carriage, ostensibly for an airing, some miles if necessary, to the goyishe neighborhood.
One phase of my early childhood is indelibly associated with such questing journeys; the shiksa was very fond of me because I didn’t cry or trouble her during long hours in friends’ homes or the hospitable atmosphere of back-rooms of saloons in the Ukrainian neighborhood. One time she forgot herself in such dallying and it was nearly midnight when she recollected herself; I still remember her terror-stricken, white, drawn face as she ran carrying me. (I was past the baby carriage stage.)
Soon after 1914 all this came to an end. War, and then legislation, cut off immigration. Industry and commerce expanded; wages went up generally; yesterday’s greeners could find better work elsewhere. The “boy” disappeared; the shiksa easily found a wage-earning husband.
This left the “one-man store” family to its own manpower. Mama had always spent a certain amount of time in the store, but now she had to take over many of papa’s duties, as he in turn had to take over the menial chores of the “boy.” Perhaps an even more painful part of the transition for them was the new demands they had to make on the children, which tied them to the store. In many cases it meant that the son of thirteen or so now had to get up at six o’clock or even earlier in the morning to deliver the regular breakfast orders to the more fancy customers.
It was a very sharp wrench from the past. It had its good side, of course, as burdens and responsibilities borne by children always have, in the sense that they prepare them better for the cruel world they have to enter later anyway. And in a sense, Ruth Glazer was perhaps better off not to have enjoyed the previous easier life of exploiting the “boy” and the shiksa before finding herself working all those hours in the store.
The Silver Cord
Charles Yale Harrison
In your editorial introduction to Ruth Glazer’s article you refer to the Jewish delicatessen as “an important Jewish cultural institution in the American scene.” This is a shrewd observation. I have long suspected that the cuisine of a people makes for a unity of identification stronger by far than the more formal aspects of a national culture. I say this at the risk of being termed a callithumpian, one who thinks more of food and the grosser pleasures than he does of loftier matters.
When the American soldier abroad speaks with nostalgia of “God’s own country,” I suspect he is thinking of New England fish chowder, ham and eggs, and pumpkin pie, rather than of the Constitution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Smithsonian Institute. The Frenchman, dreaming of la belle France, really has in mind frog’s legs à l’Aurore or suprêmes of chicken Richelieu and not the Louvre or the Sorbonne. When an Englishman, stationed in one of the Empire’s far-flung mandates, dreams of this plot of earth which is England, he is not thinking of the mother of parliaments, Shakespeare, or the British Museum, but of roast beef, boiled-to-death vegetables, and suet pudding—although why I cannot imagine. And so it is with us Jews who frequently speak of the heritage of Israel when what we really have in mind is—yes—Jewish delicatessen.
A friend gave me Ruth Glazer’s article on Jewish delicatessen to read. It was an unfriendly and cruel thing to do: I am on a reducing diet.
We get a good deal of Jewish delicatessen in Hollywood. Without pastrami sandwiches there could be no picture-making. And I understand there is a project afoot to pipe the borsht across the continent from Lindy’s.
My view on Jewish delicatessen in general is that it is far too good for the goyim, and the Jews are fools not to keep it to themselves. I hasten to add that I have had myself declared an honorary member of the Jewish community, though born a goy.
Before I started to reduce, I daresay I was as good an authority on pastrami and lox as any man in the country. I have not been honored, however, as was Clark Gable, by recognition in the Bronx, where I understand Gerson’s Appetizer Store carried the slogan:
“Bagel’s back, and Gerson’s got ’em.”
To the academician the still-life array behind the familiar glass counter of the Jewish delicatessen has a historical background as exotic as its aroma! For example, pastrami, which sounds deceptively Italian, although it has no place in that language. Our term is but a slight departure from Rumanian pastrama. But even the most ardent Daco-Roman nationalist would not claim it as indigenous to his mother tongue. Just across the Danube the Bulgarians have been eating pastrama since the days of Turkish rule, which brings us to the meat of the problem. Our pastrami is the lexical grandchild of Turkish pastirma, which is the colloquial form of basdirma. The standard dictionary of this language, published in 1890 by Sir James C. Redhouse, who evidently knew his delicatessen, describes basdirma as “meat flavored with spices and garlic and cured under pressure.” Touché, Sir James! Aside from etymology, however, pastrami must be recorded as the lasting contribution of Rumanian. Jewry to mankind.
Going somewhat farther afield, I venture to suggest that the earliest evidence of Jewry’s weakness for delicatessen is found in the dictum of Rabbi Abba ben Aibo (Rav) of the 3rd century. This authority gave his considered opinion that “no meal without a salted dish [fish or meat] is worthy of the name.” If I may permit myself to follow the well-known manuscript variant of this passage, as against the less decisive reading of the published editions (Babylonian Talmud: Berakot 44a), we may note that Rabbi Abba used the term meliah, which is derived from melah (salt) in much the same manner as salame was coined from sale (salt). But be that as it may, among the cult of Rabbi Abba in contemporary Palestine, the password is naqniq (delicatessen), which is the Hebraized form of an ancient Talmudic term generally understood to denote sausage.
Lastly, a pungent note on mustard in Jewish lore. When Aristotle dealt with the principle that the interpenetration of bodies is an impossibility, that is, two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, he argued: were it not for this salutary axiom, the world could be squeezed into a “grain of millet.” As one may readily learn from Professor Harry Wolfson’s opus entitled Hasdai Crescas’ Critique of Aristotle, this homely figure was tacitly abandoned by a number of medieval Jewish philosophers. The Jewish version of the Aristotelian argument cited is reproduced by Hasdai Crescas of Barcelona (14-15th century) thus: “the interpenetration of bodies is impossible, for, were it not so, the world could enter into a grain of mustard seed.” Let the habitués of the delicatessen take heed.
“In Chicago, you can get a hot pastrami sandwich in eateries . . . But they are sad imitations.” How true! I’m dying for a real hot pastrami sandwich, “like I used to get” at Hymie’s delicatessen on Fifth Street and Second Avenue. I’ve walked five miles to Maxwell Street, but pheh! Did you have to remind me. . . .
From the Magnolia Country
I guess Ruth Glazer is right. Jewish delicatessen exists but flourishes in few places outside of New York. My father once opened up a delicatessen store in Portsmouth, Virginia, and failed miserably. From Southern Jews it is very difficult to make a living; and Southern Gentiles are not interested in anything that cannot be fried.
We used to get our matzohs and Bismarck herring, our salami, lox, white fish, sturgeon, roll mops and dried mushrooms from H. L. Kaplan, wholesale delicatessen house, in Baltimore, Maryland. My mother corned her own beef, made her own pickles. Pastrami was unknown to us, and I never saw a knish (and wish I never had) until I came to New York City.
My family was distinctly milchigs, and somewhat obsessed on the subject of natural foods, so that I hardly ever got to eat any of the stuff we sold. The spiced and acrid smells penetrated our living room and spoiled my taste anyway. I cherish the memory of our store only because it introduced me to a man who pursued what is surely the world’s most curious profession. He was a herring shmecker or snifter, and he was to the herring business what the wine-taster is to the vintner, or the tea-taster to the importer of rare Chinese teas. His nostrils, I daresay, were no less sensitive than the taste buds of these experts and connoisseurs. Anyway, he was in the employ of H. L. Kaplan, and his function was to sniff the herrings as they were lifted out of the huge tuns, direct from the North Sea, and grade them accordingly.
H. L. Kaplan’s herring-shmecker was a small man with a dried and scaly skin, impregnated beyond a doubt with the salt from the barrels that preserved the herring—and him, too—to a ripe old age. His nostrils, out of pride or usage, were distended; his eyes were mere slits. Like most authorities, he was an irritable man, and H. L. Kaplan stood in awe of him.
Baltimore, where Kaplan had his huge plant, was then and I understand, still is, a center of Jewish life and delicatessen. It might bear investigating. But what seeped through to us in Portsmouth, via the Old Bay Line, was a pretty pallid imitation of the real thing.
For example, do you know what my mother used to do with lox? She pickled it!
The Bonnie Lox of New Jersey
A Contemporary detail, which Mrs. Glazer may wish to add to her research material on Jewish delicatessen:
The very modern frozen foods establishment on our comer has lox, frozen.
It is called—I send along the label for verification—“Lox Lomond.”
Bei Uns in Oregon
J. W. Savinar
I have always felt I should not butt in on COMMENTARY’S highbrow stuff. Besides an innate respect for a harif per se, I feel it is clear out of my line. So I leaf my dictionary, knit my brow, and keep discreetly quiet. But when a burning gastronomic issue is projected I can contain myself no longer.
I am referring to author Glazer’s recent blend of saga and conspectus on “The Jewish Delicatessen.” With all due respect for the author’s erudition, I am constrained to state that it is definitely parochial. I, for one, strenuously object to the use of the inclusive term Jewish in connection with such a motley fare as salami, pastrami, mustard, etc. I admit affinity for gefilte fish and kneidlach, but concerning pastrami I have neither an idea nor the idea of the absence of an idea, and I have made an exhaustive research in three dictionaries, one of them quite a fat one, but could find no trace of this word. And I have polled our leading citizens, orthodox and heterodox, republicans and democrats, but did not get any further than a puzzled look and a shrug of the shoulders. So much for this vaunted ambrosia.
Now as to mustard, the special object of the author’s paeans, it pains me to say that I hate it in any form, color, nationality, and dimension, the saving grace of the “cold pickle brine” notwithstanding.
But here in the progressive Far West (and I don’t mean Chicago), where men eat like men, and cowboys do their chores in tuxedos, we have long since emancipated ourselves from the Jewish Delicatessen era. Seldom indeed does a Jewish food purveyor here stock so-called kosher meats. His clientele, either curiosity bent or victims of atavism, would be too few and far between. We go here for such cosmopolitans as fried chicken, roast turkey, interfaith cold cuts, imported herrings, salads. To say nothing of such apocrypha as mountain trout, wild duck, pheasant, and venison. We even boast an Orthodox rabbi who during the summer goes into the mountains berry-picking for wild blackberries. How presumptuous to speak of the Jewish Delicatessen as something indigenous!
“Brooklyn Jewish” yes. As the present-day Psalmist would have lamented:
By the river of Brooklyn
There we sat down, yea we ate hot pas-
Beyond that one must say it with circumspection.