By Meg A. Parsont and Daniel Katz
Photographs by Meg A. Parsont
“I’ll have what she’s having.” This iconic line from When Harry Met Sally instantly transports us to a table at Katz’s Delicatessen where Meg Ryan’s/Sally’s ecstatic exclamations convince a fellow diner that the pastrami sandwich clearly isn’t to be missed. Clips from the movie are just one of the many delights on the menu at “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli, an exhibition that has just opened at New-York Historical Society.
Five years in the making, the exhibition, organized by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, reveals how Jewish delicatessens became a cornerstone of American food culture, and delves into the cultural significance of what has become the quintessential New York cuisine.
“Food is a wonderful vehicle for cultural exchange,” says Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical Society. Co-curator Lara Rabinovitch, a specialist in immigrant food cultures, adds, “Deli, is, of course, a New York tradition and an American story. It tells the story of adaptation and resilience.”
As the press release notes, this exhibition explores how Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe imported and adapted traditions to life in the New World to create a cuisine that became the cornerstone of popular culture with worldwide influence.
Exhibits and signage explore the origins and evolution of the Jewish deli, starting with 3 million Jews who came to the US between 1880-1924, many of whom settled on the Lower East Side and opened humble food businesses that morphed into restaurants where foods from various regions were all served under one roof for the first time. From pickles and pastrami, knishes and borscht to smoked fish, bagels, and babka, these foods from Central and Eastern Europe became the staples of the Jewish deli in the United States.
As the exhibit progresses, it delves into the heyday of the deli between the World Wars, introduces us to Holocaust survivors who found community—and often employment—in delis, and delis in popular culture. The displays range from the poignant—a worn suitcase and pair of brass candlesticks belonging to immigrants around the turn of the last century—to the delightfully kitschy, including neon signs and vintage clocks that once adorned the walls of popular delis in LA, Chicago, and New York.
There are also costumes from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, vintage deli workers’ uniforms, an original bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, menus, advertisements, and even a miniature model of Katz’s Delicatessen.
There are photographs of immigrants in the 19th century around a communal table, beloved eateries that are now shuttered including Fine & Shapiro Kosher Delicatessen on the Upper West Side, and a surprising appearance by Guns ‘N’ Roses at the Kibitz Room bar, adjoining Canter’s Deli in LA. And of course there are clips from the movie that inspired the name of the exhibition!
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Food for Thought from ”I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli
“Delicatessen” is a German word that loosely translates to “a place to find delicious things to eat.”
The German poet Heinrich Heine called kugel the “holy national dish…of Judaism.”
A pastrami sandwich cost .95 in 1961. Today it costs about $25.95.
In the 1930s there were close to 3,000 delis throughout New York City; today only about a dozen remain.
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Laura Mart, co-curator of “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli, says, “What’s more joyful than delicious food?” This exhibit is a testament to the joy Jewish deli food has brought generations of Americans, and to the enduring appeal of this timeless cuisine. Warning: Be prepared for an irrepressible craving for a pastrami sandwich upon leaving the building!
Plan a visit:
On view from November 11, 2022-April 2, 2023
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at 77th Street