A tantalizing new exhibit opens at the New-York Historical Society – West Side Rag
By Meg A. Parsont and Daniel Katz
Photographs by Meg A. Parsont
“I will have what she has.” This emblematic line of When Harry Met Sally Instantly transports us to a table at Katz’s Delicatessen where Meg Ryan/Sally’s ecstatic exclamations convince another diner that the pastrami sandwich is clearly not to be missed. Clips from the film are just one of the many delights on the menu of “I’ll Have What She Has”: The Jewish Delian exhibit that just opened at the New-York Historical Society.
Five years in the making, the exhibit, curated by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, reveals how Jewish delis became a cornerstone of American food culture and delves into the cultural significance of what has become the epitome of New York cuisine.
“Food is a wonderful vehicle for cultural exchange,” says Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the 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 history. It tells the story of adaptation and resilience.
As the press release notes, this exhibit 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 a cornerstone of popular culture with a global influence.
Exhibits and signage explore the origins and evolution of Jewish grocery shopping, beginning with the 3 million Jews who came to the United States between 1880 and 1924, many of whom settled on the Lower East Side and opened humble food businesses that grew into restaurants where foods from diverse 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 Central and Eastern European foods have become staples of Jewish deli meats in the United States.
As the exhibit progresses, it delves into the heyday of charcuterie between the two world wars, introduces us to Holocaust survivors who found community – and often employment – in delicatessens and delicatessens in popular culture. Exhibits range from the poignant — a worn suitcase and a pair of brass candlesticks belonging to turn-of-the-century immigrants — to the delightfully kitsch, including neon signs and vintage clocks that once adorned the walls of popular Los Angeles grocery stores. Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
There are also costumes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maiselvintage deli 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 restaurants that are now closed, 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 Los Angeles. And of course, there are excerpts from the film that inspired the name of the exhibition!
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food for thought “I’ll Have What She Has”: The Jewish Deli
“Delicatessen” is a German word that loosely translates to “a place to find delicious things to eat”.
German poet Heinrich Heine called kugel “the sacred national dish… of Judaism.”
A pastrami sandwich was $0.95 in 1961. Today it costs about $25.95.
In the 1930s, there were nearly 3,000 delicatessens throughout New York City; today there are only about a dozen left.
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Laura Mart, co-curator of “I’ll have what she has”: The Jewish Deli, said: “What is more joyful than delicious food?” This exhibit is a testament to the joy Jewish charcuterie has brought to generations of Americans and the enduring appeal of this timeless cuisine. Warning: Be prepared for an irrepressible craving for a pastrami sandwich when you leave the building!
Schedule a visit:
On view from November 11, 2022 to April 2, 2023
New York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at 77th Street