- Historic Sites
The woman whose great-grandfather introduced pastrami to the New World explores an American institution that is as hard to define as it is easy to recognize
February/March 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 1
The great immigration of the late-nineteenth century brought unheard-of things to America: Tin Pan Alley, Bakelite, the first air-conditioned hat. And thanks to Sussman Volk, pastrami. In 1887, a not-great year for Jews in Vilna, my great-grandfather packed up his wife and seven children and headed for New York. He had nine fingers, having shot one off to avoid the Russian draft.
In Vilna, Sussman was a miller. But New York didn’t need millers. So he became a tinker, mending pots and pans and selling them off his back. On the road, he would sleep in the stables of the people he sold pots to. While praying one morning in New Rochelle, he was kicked by a horse, which made him tear his hair and shout, “My life lacks dignity!”
Being a religious man, Reb Sussman knew the kosher way to butcher meat. He opened a tiny shop at 86½ Delancey Street in New York City. The first week, a Rumanian stopped by and asked if he could store a trunk in the cellar. “I’m just going back for a few years,” he said.
“If I let you store your trunk in my cellar,” Reb Sussman bargained, “what will you give me?”
“If you let me store my trunk in your cellar, I will give you the recipe for pastrami.”
Great-grandpa took the trunk and the recipe and began selling chunks of pastrami over the counter. Soon he was selling it by the slice. Then between two pieces of bread. Since the application of mustard to a pastrami sandwich should be done at the last possible moment so the mustard doesn’t get hot and sink into the rye (which should be soft but never gummy), after school all seven of Reb Sussman’s children worked in the store making toodles. A toodle is a little square of wax paper rolled into a cone with a dollop of mustard in it—a precursor to the stingy plastic mustard bags you tear open with your teeth on airplanes. With a toodle, you could take a pastrami sandwich to work in the morning and lay a squiggle of fresh mustard on it at lunch.
Reb Sussman’s pastrami sandwiches took off. He moved from 86 ½ Delancey Street to 88 Delancey Street. Here he had room to put in tables and chairs. Overnight, Sussman Volk’s was no longer just a butcher’s. You could sit there and eat. It was 1888. The first New York deli was born. (Around this time, according to family lore, Sussman’s son Albert, working independently, became the first man to stir scallions into cream cheese.)
In the twentieth century, as the diaspora headed south and west, other delis were not far behind. Nate ‘n’ Al has been in Los Angeles since Joan Crawford ran a restaurant in Mildred Pierce . Wolfie’s, a founder of the Early Bird Special, and now the Super Early Bird Special if you don’t mind dinner at 3:00 P.M. , has been a Collins Avenue fixture since Miami became the Catskills of the South. Near Cleveland, Corky and Lenny’s feeds a thousand people a day. Uptown in Manhattan, there’s the Carnegie Deli, which serves things that must make Reb Sussman spin in his kittel (the pleated linen tent a religious man wears to his bar mitzvah, wedding, and funeral). The Carnegie Deli has cutely named sandwiches like the Hamalot (hot Virginia ham with gravy, candied sweets or baked beans). Its neighbor, the Stage Deli, names sandwiches after movie stars, such as the Julia Roberts (chicken salad, hard-boiled egg, lettuce, and tomato). In Urbana, Virginia (pop. 6), the Pinetree Deli specializes in pulled pork and pit-cooked BBQ. And you can order a pork sausage poboy at Castalano’s Deli in Morgan City, Louisiana. Is any place that makes a sandwich a deli? Is a bodega a deli? A Friendly’s? And what’s the difference between a delicatessen and an appetizing store?
I call Jack Lebewohl at the Second Avenue Kosher Deli.
“ Ver veist? ” he says. (Who knows?) “A deli serves more cold cuts; an appetizing store, more fish. But a deli can also have fish and an appetizing store can also have deli. It has to do with emphasis.”