DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 17: The Fat Jewish, a pastrami and corned beef sandwich, at Rye Society in Denver, Colorado on September 17, 2018. The Jewish deli, opened recently by Jerrod Rosen, features family recipes such as his mothers matzo ball soup and his aunts rugelach. (Photo by Nick Cote for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Storied History Of
The Classic
Jewish Deli
By Heidi Chaya
The history of the classic Jewish deli is tied to immigration and the impact of Jewish food traditions on the American diet. As Jewish immigrant families from Europe traveled, they brought their foods with them, which would become indispensable in American food culture.
There are many Jewish delis in New York City, including Katz's Delicatessen, which first opened in 1888 and is perhaps the most emblematic example of deli culture. Of course, there's more to Jewish cuisine than the deli counter, and what the U.S. thinks of as "Jewish food" is food that mainly hails from Ashkenazi communities of Eastern Europe.
Other key components of Jewish cuisine include rye, caraway, dill, poppyseeds, and various spices influenced by different regions where Jewish people have lived, like Moroccan ras el hanout, Arabic za'atar, and Hungarian paprika. Jewish deli foods were influenced by the religious practice of keeping kosher, a set of religious dietary guidelines about how animal foods are handled, processed, and eaten.
Kosher guidelines also prohibit meat cuts from anything other than the forequarters — therefore, brisket features largely on the Jewish deli menu, while American roast beef does not. The next time you order your "usual" at your favorite neighborhood deli, remember its rich history and the people who helped make it part of your everyday life.