Deli Talk with Bryant, Dylan, and Seth

Inspired by Ted Merwin’s October 10 talk,  ”When Harry Met Sally: The Jewish Deli in American Popular Culture,” Professor Bryant Simon took grad students Dylan Gottlieb and Seth Tannenbaum to Famous 4th Street Deli for a nosh. Here’s what went down.

[Plates of food arrive: heaping mounds of whitefish, capers, scrambled eggs with nova and onions, bagels (everything and pumpernickel).] 

Dylan Gottlieb: Wow, that looks good–and so much! Bryant, what are your memories of eating deli from growing up? And why do you think that these types of meals continue to hold such an emotional appeal for Jewish fressers, even now?

Bryant Simon: My memories of eating deli are almost all at home. They begin with waiting in line on Sunday mornings with my dad. Of my parents friends eating and talking (and talking and eating). Of the food being out all day long. Of those of friends of parents eating fish in the morning, and then having some corned beef and cole slaw in the afternoons.

As a teenager, I ate deli — on my own. I used to go to a place in Vineland, NJ, a bar/restaurant owned by a family, the Terrises, and sit at the bar and order a corned beef special with a birch beer (in a frosted mug.) I didn’t pay, the bill went to my parents. Later when I was in graduate school, I worked for Mr. Terris at Lou’s (famous) deli in Ventnor, New Jersey.

Another thought. The deli is for me now both nostalgic (for sure), but also a place of coming to terms with excess. With the anticipation of getting plates with so much (and how great that is) comes the anxiety of plenty. What to do with all that food?

DG: Seth, what are your memories of eating deli? Where’d you go? What kind of significance does this food have for you?

Seth Tannenbaum: Unlike Bryant, my memories of eating deli are mostly not at home.  Sometimes my family would go to Hymie’s in Bala Cynwydbecause my father went to Haverford and knew it from his college days.  We also had go-to delis near both of my grandparents’ houses.  Moish and Itzy’s in Newtown, PA and one I can’t remember the name of in Staten Island, NY.

Needless to say, going to delis was a family affair for me, but unlike Bryant, it was mostly a special occasion.  We’d go to a deli as a treat, or because we were visiting family.  We didn’t start bringing deli in until my grandparents really weren’t well enough to go out to a restaurant.  Not surprisingly, I associate deli food with family.

Perhaps the best part of the deli experience though, was making a meal (or a midnight snack in my teenage years) out of everyone’s leftovers.

I know we’ve talked about this before, but why do delis seems to always have HUGE portions? (Dylan, I hope these leftovers are scrumptious.)

DG: That’s a good question, Seth. I think there are (at least) two possible answers–one historical, the other psychological.

My first explanation draws from Hasia Diner’s 2003 book Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. (Diner will be coming to speak on Jewish immigrant food at Temple University on October 30.)

Diner argues that immigrants came to America not just for the promises of economic opportunity or political freedom, but for “tables heaped with food.” Fleeing deprivation–or outright starvation–in their home countries, Jewish migrants in particular experienced their journey as a transition from privation to plenty. Decades on, food remained at the center of migrants’ lives: Jews continued to celebrate their passage from Old World to New by cooking up towering apple cakes and elephantine matzah balls.

Diner’s story sounds plausible, at least for the first few post-immigrant generations. But something tells me that for us third- or fourth-generation folks, deli’s oversized appeal has less to do with hazy memories of the Old World than it does with nostalgia for our own childhoods.

It’s like this: when we were kids, Grandma (or Mom, Dad, whomever) served us comforting food–brisket, kugel, bagels piled high with scallion cream cheese. Even if the servings were modest by adult standards, to a 7-year-old, the scale was overwhelming. Clouded by the haze of youth (and steaming chicken broth), we began to conflate comfort and abundance.

Now when we want to recapture a bit of Grandma’s TLC, we go to Jewish delis that serve the heaping portions evocative of our childhood. Granted, some restaurants (Famous 4th Street, I’m looking at you) take this to a hyperbolic extreme, slinging some comically zaftig sandwiches. But the idea’s the same.

Of course, I might be wrong. It could be all about value: Jews love nothing more than heaping servings for fair prices. Reminds me of the old Groucho Marx bit that Woody Allen retells in Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke: two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ‘em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’”

Bryant, do you think I’m right about deli’s emotional resonance? Why else would people keep coming? And who, exactly, is in these delis these days? Does deli’s appeal translate to those who didn’t grow up with it?

BS: Dylan, I have been thinking of that Annie Hall/Catskills joke since we started this deli conversation.

Clearly there is an emotional resonance to the deli, but at the same time, I think a place like 4th Street and Carnegie’s in New York have become destinations dining spots. They are part of the tourist and bridge and tunnel landscape of the city.

People go to remember their past and their parent’s and grandparent’s past. They go because these places speak, perhaps, to what cities offer — a version of diversity that includes old world-ish ethnicity. They go — dare I say it — in search of authenticity. An authenticity absent in a world of Paneras and Subway sandwiches.

But mostly, I think they go for the spectacle — the spectacle of the food, the presentation, and yes, the size of the portions. This is literally conspicuous consumption. They ooh and ahh at their plates as they are dropped at their tables. They talk about the size of the portions. How can anyone eat this much?

It is the spectacle of excess — always a sure seller in our world of Donald Trumps and the biggest, newest, and flashiest. That way, the deli gets it both ways — it can be both authentic and over the top at the same time. How about that for an emotional connection?

ST: Not to brown nose, but I think Bryant nailed the dual offerings of the deli that draw third and fourth generation Jews from far and wide …

Thinking about eating deli as a spectacle of excess leads me to think about the performative aspect of eating at one.  Here at 4th Street, we’re sitting in the window, essentially advertising how excessive our portions are.

Imagine someone sitting on the park bench across the street, guessing at our conversation as the food arrived, as we survey what was left after we were full, and then again as we ask the waitress for a to-go container.  I’d be willing to bet that they’d get the gist of our conversation pretty well just from our body language.  Almost as if we were performing in pantomime.  After all, you do comport yourself differently in a deli than some restaurant that just got four bells from Craig LaBan.  That might be a subject for another day though …

DG: I think you’re on to something, Seth–there’s nothing like a deli breakfast to get people kibitzing. Maybe it’s all of the pictures on the walls, the ghosts of Jews past, that get us in that convivial mood. (Or it could just be the free coffee refills.)

Either way, it’s time for the check and a to-go container. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not about to let this ridiculous mound of whitefish go to waste!

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