Beginning in the 1840’s, Germans began immigrating to the United States; they brought with them many of their preserved, pickled and canned foods, and their family recipes. Delicatessen (also known as “deli”) is a combination of words which roughly translates into “delicacies to eat” or “to eat delicious things”. Within these palaces of eatery, authentic German and/or Americanized versions of foods were offered a variety of sausages (or “wieners”), beef frankfurters, sauerkraut, hamburgers, meat loaf, liverwurst, cold cuts, noodle dishes, dill pickles, herring in cream sauce, lager beer, seltzer water, pretzels (hard and crunchy or the big, doughy New York-style soft pretzels), potato salad, muenster cheese, rolls, pastries, rye and pumpernickel breads.
During the 1890’s to 1920’s, Eastern Europeans of Jewish descent started to flock to the United States, bringing not only their language (Yiddish) and religion, but their own foods and recipes. Kosher and kosher-style delicatessens were established and New Yorkers were introduced to bagels, bialys, smoked salmon and white fish, Matzo and Matzo ball soup, pastrami, corned beef, tongue, borscht, chopped liver, pickled herring and potato pancakes.
When it came to a smorgasbord, the delicatessen was the place to indulge. New York not only personified the concept of the “melting pot” with the variety of ethnic cultures and religions, but also with the food items available to the public. As the United States developed, these cultures moved across the states and introduced the concept of the deli to many an area. In the 1950’s, supermarkets were introduced around the country which offered many of the same items as found in the neighborhood deli. This caused many a deli to close its doors, since they could not compete with the lesser prices a supermarket could charge due to bulk purchasing; but not a complete death.
Growing up, and living in, New York for a good part of my life, I was fortunate enough to experience the neighborhood deli. I miss delis and their uniqueness; the familiarity of the workers behind the counter, the smells of meats and cheeses, the yeastiness of the breads and rolls; it was a complete feast for all the senses.
I can, however, make a mean deli sandwich of my own and here is one of my husband’s favorites.
2 slices rye bread
4 Tbsp Thousand Island salad dressing
2 slices Swiss cheese
¼ lb each sliced turkey breast, corned beef and pastrami
1/3 cup cole slaw
½ cup each potato and macaroni salads
Spread 2 Tbsp of salad dressing on one side of each slice of bread; place one slice of cheese on each slice. Layer on the cold cuts, top with cole slaw, close up sandwich, cut in half; serve with pickle spear and salads.