Mosaic of Meats : A History of New York Delis
Delicatessen is a term meaning “fine food” or “delicacies”.
The word has its roots from Latin but it was Germany who first introduced delicatessens to New York City. Originally, the first stores spelled the word with a “K” instead of a “C”
It entered American culture in New York and has spread to the point of commercialization. New York, today, is known for their delis and other delis outside of New York City call themselves “New York” style delis to evoke the image of the original New York Deli. Some say the City has the best delis because of the excellent water quality, therefore everything that is steamed tastes so good in New York, the bagels, the pastrami, the hot dogs. The melting pot of all the cultures in New York City combined into the greatest deli scene ever known.
Many of us would refer to these types of shops as a European delicatessen and they would sell food by the weight which included liverwurst, pickled vegetables, dips, sausages, and other cold cut items. They do not characteristically sell take-out food which has become accustomed in American and Jewish in New York City. In a sense, they duplicated as grocery stores for local areas.
The history of deli food has its origins in Germany more so or as much as any other country in Europe.
Over 2 million Italians came to New York City from Europe between 1900 and 1910. The only 2 populations to immigrate more during this time were the Germans and the Irish. They immediately set up small Italian neighborhoods, some went to the Bronx, some to Brooklyn, and even a few to East Harlem. The most famous New York Italian neighborhood is the one in Manhattan, Little Italy, specifically Mulberry Street. Around the time of the influx of the Italian Americans Mulberry street was crowded with street vendors and businesses. Italian and German delis were similar in they generally charge meat and cheeses by the pound rather then to-go foods. Italian delis specialized in meats, cheeses, and pastas. The delicacies they provided from the old country included mozzarella, parmesan, gorgonzola, prosciutto, and salami. The Italian delis also carried sweets, like the traditional panettone cake and dried figs, as well as traditional Italian cooking spices and garnishes such as basil, oregano and olive oil. Today in Manhattan, at 200 Grand St, Di Palo's fine foods is a classic case of a traditional Italian deli. In 1903 Savino Di Palo came to America and started a “latteria” , a dairy store, in the Little Italy neighborhood. The store sold exclusively cheeses, until later generations made it a full deli with meats and other items for selections.
The Irish in New York City are a completely other story, in that they do not have “deli”, but rather that have pubs which served bar foods and Irish delicacies. They deserve mention because of a significant contribution to deli foods. Corned beef, cabbage, and beer is the traditional St. Patrick's day meal - The term “corned” is quite old in origin and technique includes putting meat in a large crock pot and covering it with large rock-salt kernels to preserve the meat. The Irish were the biggest exporters of corned beef until 1825. Corned beef is famous for being the main meat in the Reuben Sandwich, a deli classic.
With Eastern European immigrants came to the Jewish immigrants. Major Jewish immigration to New York began in the 1880s with the increase on antisemitism in Europe. The original population of Jews settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Jewish delis revolutionized the deli and everything we came to know about them. They served hot foods in a cafeteria style, where you pick up your tray order and go on up to the register and pay. Jewish delis follow the kosher laws and some of their delicacies include matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, and pastrami. Traditional pastrami is made from the navel end of the beef, which is much more fatty than the chest end of the beef. It is then “corned” and seasoned with different herbs and spices to obtain its flavor. The meat is meant to be steamed before slicing and serving. The word “pastrami” is derived from Yiddish but likely came from Turkish origin. A similar dish is served in Armenian cuisine called “basturma” and also as “basterma” in Arabic cuisine. Its current form is associated with a Jewish deli selling “pastrami” in New York City in 1887. It's likely the word was made to sound like the Italian word salami to make it more marketable to customers. The classic New York sandwich is the pastrami sandwich on rye. It comes in different variations, some people like it with coleslaw and other like it with Russian dressing which is similar to thousand island sauce.
The most famous and loved delis in New York are Jewish. They include the 2nd Ave Deli, The Stage Deli, The Carnegie Deli, and Katz' Deli. Some may argue which has the best sandwich but Katz' deli on the Lower East Side might be the most famous. Katz' was founded in 1888 by a Russian immigrant and is known for its pastrami, corned beef, and hot dogs. Every week Katz' is going through about twelve thousand pounds of meat. Its famous slogan “Send a salami to your boy in the army” came about in World War two and to this day salami is sent to troops in the war. Katz' was in the film When Harry Met Sally and has been featured on television both on PBS and the Travel Channel.
The deli as we know it in America was an evolution process. The first shops sold only meats and delicacies, but they eventually moved on to selling hot and prepared foods. The delis today remain specialized to the culture they originate from, but more varieties exist. American culture has spawned its own deli style with the submarine style sandwiches and commercialization of sandwiches with places like Subway and Quizno's. The Bay Area and Los Angeles have excellent traditional Jewish delis which I was able to attend for on field research on the traditional deli experience. With the great appeal and magnitude of meat aficionados it seems the deli will remain and evolve as tastes change.