Mention the word â€œdeliâ€ nowadays and most people will think you are talking about a counter at their local mega mart where they can purchase sliced meats, sliced, cheeses, and a variety of prepared foods and salads. While, technically, this may be true, it does very little justice to the long history of this American urban institution. Sadly, the deli, or delicatessen, is a dying breed, yet another victim of the homogenization of American cuisine. Luckily, we have Sheryll Bellman to remind us of the wonderful pasts of these colorful places, and the bold, ethnic foods they sold.
â€œAmerica's Great Delisâ€ is much more than a cookbook. It is a history book that brings alive a tradition and a culture that is slowly disappearing as it merges into the American mainstream. Delicatessens are a relatively recent phenomenon, springing up in the late 19th century and early 20th century, in response to the influx of approximately 2 million Eastern European Jews to America. These stores provided a sense of community to these misplaced people. They gave them a place to gather and socialize, while providing them with foods that reminded them of their homeland. But while these communities have slowly disappeared as they have assimilated into American culture, they have left behind a wonderful legacy.
It is this legacy that Sheryll Bellman captures so deftly in this book. Reading this book you truly get a sense of what these delis were like, who ran them and who frequented them. She spends considerable time discussing the history of the delicatessen and the role it played as one of the cornerstones of a Jewish immigrant's life.
After setting up the history of the deli, Ms. Bellman then takes the reader through the histories of the most common deli foods. Here you will find brief histories of deli foods as mainstream as bagels, corned beef and cheesecake, to the almost forgotten Egg Cream (a chocolate seltzer drink) to the more obscure such as Tzimmes, a sweet side dish made with carrots, honey, raisins and various other ingredients. You will also find a brief, fun section on Yiddish words that delis have made common place and a page devoted to deli speak, that special language used by short order cooks and countermen in delis.
The rest of the book is devoted to essays on some the great delis of America, and recipes from those delis. Here you will find examples of just about every kind of deli there ever was, from Appetizing stores (selling nothing but dairy and seafood products) to fully kosher delis, to a small Knishery. There are essays on delis no longer in existence, on small, kosher bakeries, on fish houses and on great, popular delis such as Katz's, Stage Deli and Lindy's, each essay containing at least one, and often many more, recipes. Some of these recipes are mere speculation as the place has been out of business for years and only its memory remains, but many more are directly from the delis themselves. It is these recipes that I find to be the weakest link of the book. All the recipes are great I would just like to have seen Ms. Bellman dig a little deeper for some of the recipes. Sure, any book on delis had better have recipes on Matzo balls, beef brisket, Rueben's, and the like, but with 3 recipes for Kugel, 3 recipes for Cheese Blintzes, and 5 recipes for Cheesecake, I feel that there could have been more room to explore some of the less stereotypical deli foods.
Overall, as a student of the history of food in America, I loved this book. â€œAmerica's Great Delisâ€ is a window into one of the great food traditions of this country. Unfortunately, it is a tradition that is slowly dying, but hopefully authors like Sheryll Bellman will help to reacquaint the masses with this humble institution thus insuring its survival. I can't help but agree when Ms. Bellman said, â€œThe deli culture is slowly diminishing in cities throughout the country, but as people look for solace and a place to gather with friends, the deli is the place that could again restore that sense of community.â€