When word got out recently that a new Jewish delicatessen would be opening in the Baltimore metropolitan area, the first question many people had was not whether the place would be kosher — folks assumed it wouldn’t be — but whether it would be authentic.
But authenticity, when it comes to a Jewish deli, is very much in the eye of the beholder, says Ted Merwin, author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” (NYU Press).
A Pikesville resident and executive director of Reservoir Hill’s Beth Am Synagogue, Merwin contends that our feelings about authenticity regarding Jewish delis is partly shaped by firsthand experiences and memory (always tricky) but also by extraneous sources.
“Because my Ph.D. is in theater and I write about theater and popular culture,” Merwin says, “I did a lot of research into the representation of the Jewish deli in film and television and stand-up comedy and popular music, so that I could really get a sense of how the deli was really identified in many ways with Jewish life in the minds of not just Jews but non-Jews as well.”
Merwin, who speaks around the community about the history of the deli, is a former professor of Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He spoke recently about the past and present state of Jewish delis while dining in the famed Kibbitz Room at Attman’s Delicatessen, the Lombard Street landmark famed for its large variety of overstuffed sandwiches such as “The Original” Cloak and Dagger (corned beef, coleslaw and Russian dressing), as well as for having survived in an East Baltimore neighborhood once thriving with Jewish-oriented businesses.
Business at Attman’s appears to still be thriving, with customers lining up at the counter to order traditional deli fare like pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs but also shrimp salad sandwiches and subs stuffed with Italian ham and capicollo.
The sale of such decidedly non-kosher items does not detract from Attman’s identity as an authentic Jewish deli — chicken noodle soup and bagels with nova are on the menu, too. The introduction of non-kosher foods into a Jewish deli are nothing new, Merwin says.
“There is a pretty big range in non-kosher delis,” he says. “[Some] will serve beef that’s not kosher, but not pork or shellfish. It’s a sign of Jewish culture absorbed by mainstream culture.”
Merwin says he worked on “Pastrami on Rye” for more than a decade. His research required numerous trips down to Florida, where he drove the highways between Miami Beach and West Palm Beach, interviewing former deli owners, retired Hebrew National executives and others with a connection to the deli industry.
In “Pastrami on Rye,” Merwin explains that the flourishing of the Jewish deli in the United States, particularly in New York City, was the product not of the first wave of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but of their children, who began to emerge from their own neighborhoods and moved about in mainstream culture.
In the 1930s, Merwin says, there were more than 1,500 Jewish delis in New York. The outer boroughs of the city were still home to traditional kosher delicatessens, while Manhattan became the destination for neon-bright, full-scale restaurants.
“They created a gathering space,” Merwin says, an alternate universe for Jewish diners “where they could congratulate themselves for advancing up into the middle class. The delis in the Theater District were imbued with glitz and glamour, the sandwiches were overstuffed. Jews were still trying to find some purchase in American life. Here, they could vicariously feel like they were celebrities. Jews were trying to leave the immigrant community behind.”
Baltimore had its share of storied delis, too, with the best known, Nate’s & Leon’s, operating from the early 1930s until 1950 when the restaurant moved to the Pimlico Hotel. Others included Sussman and Lev’s, Mandell-Ballow’s, and Awrach and Perl’s. With the exception of Suburban House, Lenny’s, Miller’s, Weiss Deli and Attman’s, the full-service delicatessen restaurant has all but disappeared from Baltimore’s dining landscape.
At Attman’s, most customers take their food away, but some take their meals into the Kibbitz Room, where the walls are lined with photographs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia showcasing the Attman family’s century of contributions to the Baltimore culinary scene.
Attman’s, with its counter-service format, is in some ways a throwback to the origins of the Jewish deli, which are rooted in the old European gourmet food stores.
“They were essentially take-out stores,” Merwin said.
Merwin says he’s curious about The Essen Room, the new deli restaurant opening in Pikesville, and also about a “New York-style” deli that he recently heard about from a friend — in Dundalk, of all places.
Top photo: Owned and operated by Nathan J. Herr and Leon Shaivitz, Nate’s and Leon’s, which opened in the early 1930s at the corner of North and Linden avenues, was arguably Baltimore’s most popular deli. (File image)
Richard Gorelick is a Baltimore-based freelance writer. You can watch him at facebook.com/jmoreliving every Thursday at 12:30 p.m. for This Week in Baltimore Eating.
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