‘Pastrami on Rye’

Release Date: October 6, 2015

Pastrami on Rye book cover

Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli (front cover)


For much of the twentieth century, the New York Jewish deli was an iconic institution in both Jewish and American life. As a social space it rivaled—and in some ways surpassed—the synagogue as the primary gathering place for the Jewish community. In popular culture it has been the setting for classics like When Harry Met Sally. And today, after a long period languishing in the trenches of the hopelessly old-fashioned, it is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence.

Pastrami on Rye is the first full-length history of the New York Jewish deli. The deli, argues Ted Merwin, reached its full flowering not in the immigrant period, as some might assume, but in the interwar era, when the children of Jewish immigrants celebrated the first flush of their success in America by downing sandwiches and cheesecake in theater district delis. But it was the kosher deli that followed Jews as they settled in the outer boroughs of the city, and that became the most tangible symbol of their continuing desire to maintain a connection to their heritage. Ultimately, upwardly mobile American Jews discarded the deli as they transitioned from outsider to insider status in the middle of the century. Now contemporary Jews are returning the deli to cult status as they seek to reclaim their cultural identities.

Richly researched and compellingly told, Pastrami on Rye gives us the surprising story of a quintessential New York institution.

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Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli

Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli (back cover)

Editorial Reviews

“An affable dive into the culture and history of the Jewish deli…[written with] knowledge and affection.”
Max Watman, New York Times Book Review

“The fruit of more than ten years of research and writing, Mr. Merwin’s account shows that delis have been a rich part of the story of Jewish assimilation in America.”
The Economist

“A cultural history of American Judaism told through a particularly revealing culinary lens…[Merwin’s] nuanced reading of the deli’s rise and fall is also a serious meditation on Jewish culture in America.”
Samuel Thrope, Haaretz

“Combining a flair for anecdote with exhaustive research, Merwin has produced an exuberantly readable history of delis, and he reveals how their prepared foods helped free early twentieth-century women from daily kitchen drudgery. The very success of ethnic Jewish delicatessens led inevitably to cultural assimilation for Jews and to appreciative acceptance by Gentiles, and the delicatessen became indisputably an American institution.”

“A pleasing exercise in culinary and cultural history, evoking some favorite New York-centric comfort foods…Suffice it to say that the author…does a solid job of locating the delicatessen…as a cultural and culinary center of New York Jewish life.”
– Kirkus Reviews

“A comprehensive history of the New York deli from its European antecedent beginnings to what Ted Merwin calls the ‘postgastronomic’ deli we have today. After doing exhaustive research into the subject, Dr. Merwin has put his scholarly pen and thoughtful gaze to work to create this marvelous book. I got really hungry for pastrami reading this comprehensive story of the American deli. Now that is a sign of a great read.”
Joan Nathan, author of Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France

“Merwin’s extraordinarily exhaustive research and his skill in selecting just the right fact, telling detail, quote, and anecdote makes this one of the most enjoyable, enlightening, fluid and fascinating food histories I’ve ever read. And it is my history, too, being one of those many Jews for whom the delicatessen and love of delicatessen foods is as much a part of my identity as the ethics and humanity my religion has taught me.”
Arthur Schwartz, author of Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited

“Brings together a vast range of scholarship and anecdote to produce the first comprehensive history of the Jewish delicatessen. Both culinary and cultural history, this book will be of interest to scholars and common readers alike, the former for its incisive interpretations of modern Jewish foodways and the latter for its ability to recreate a time and place that was ‘home’ for so many 20th century Jews in America. Its evocation of deli menus alone will get your mouth watering.”
David Kraemer, author of Jewish Eating and Jewish Identity Through the Ages

“In Pastrami on Rye, Merwin finally addresses the pressing question overlooked in his first book on New York Jews (In Their Own Image): but where did they eat? This fun and informative examination of the New York Jewish deli is half history and half love story; batampte und geshmacht, with a heaping helping of sakhel—you’ll kvell before you plotz!”
Eric Michael Mazur, co-editor of God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture

Pastrami on Rye is both a celebration of the deli and an elegy for it. This lively book traces the deli’s evolution from dynamic gathering place to kitschy tourist site, peppered with hefty doses of popular culture. Merwin tells a fascinating story of cultural and culinary assimilation as he explores what it means to be modern and American. This book left me longing for the lost delis of my youth!”
Darra Goldstein, Founding Editor, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture

“Merwin’s long awaited history of the deli delivers like the best deli fress: this is a book that nails the mustard-slicked soulful flavor of this cultural gem, with a heft of academic substance that leaves the mind thoroughly satisfied (and the body starved for chopped liver).”
David Sax, author of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue