When the Anglo-Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill, in his popular 1908 drama, “The Melting Pot,” invented the term that became a major metaphor for how we view the ethnic life of New York, he wasn’t talking about food. Zangwill’s idea was that Old World European immigrants were being amalgamated with other immigrants in a divine “crucible” to form a sturdier, more self-reliant kind of person. But the reality, then as today, is that cultures do meet through food; Americans (beginning with the colonists and the Native Americans, as we celebrate at Thanksgiving) liberally sample each other’s dishes, often adopting them as their own.
Walk into Lenny’s Deli in Owings Mills, Md. (just outside Baltimore) and take a look at the menu, which includes not just corned beef sandwiches and knishes, but fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. The owners are Jewish, but almost all of the employees are black, and the clientele is a mixture of blacks and Jews. The two cultures are presented side by side, united through the foods that they eat.
Every culture has its soul food, to which the members of that culture go to seek a sense of comfort, consolation, and connection to their ancestors. For Jewish Americans, it is often the Eastern European-derived food of the delicatessen — peppery pastrami, succulent corned beef, and matzah ball dumplings with chicken soup. For African-Americans, it is often the food of the South — crispy fried chicken, glossy collard greens, and creamy sweet potato pie.
Somewhere along the way, blacks discovered Jewish food too, and made it their own. As Marcie Cohen Ferris wrote in her book, “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South” (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), black Southern cooks who worked in Jewish homes brought the flavors of the bayou to their preparation of Jewish dishes, using beef stock and Creole spices in their matzah ball soup and frying green tomatoes in matzah ball batter. When African-Americans migrated to the North after the First World War, they continued eating Jewish food, and they found Jewish delis to be more welcoming than other types of white-owned restaurants. (This was not universally true, though; a Depression-era deli in Baltimore required that black patrons bring their own plates, and Charles Lebedin, the owner of Leb’s Delicatessen in Atlanta, was the target of a famous sit-in during the civil rights era.)
Lyon’s Deli, on Maxwell Street in Chicago, was sold in 1973 by owner Ben Lyon to one of his African-American countermen, Nate Duncan, who continued for two decades to sell corned beef, pickled herring and gefilte fish to the neighborhood’s predominantly African-American population. (It’s a setting in the 1980 film, “The Blues Brothers,” where it’s called the Soul Food Café.)
And in one of his classic 1970s “On the Road” episodes, journalist Charles Kuralt profiled Jerry Meyers, the volatile, high-pressure owner of Jerry’s Deli on Chicago’s Grand Avenue; Meyer’s son, Michael, quoted by Kuralt, calls Jerry’s “the most integrated store in the world,” praising his father for “liking black and white the same.” Little wonder that when Barack Obama was running for his first term as president, he made a highly publicized stop at Manny’s, a Jewish deli in Chicago’s South Loop.
Blacks are certainly not the only non-Jews to prize deli food. Brent’s Deli, in the Northridge section of Los Angeles, seemed, on the basis of a visit last week, to have more Asian and Latino customers than Jewish ones. Langer’s, which Nora Ephron thought had the best pastrami sandwich in the country, is in Westlake, a Central L.A. neighborhood that is now predominantly Latino. Delis in New York, from Katz’s to the 2nd Avenue Deli, are destination restaurants for non-Jewish tourists from all over the country and all over the world.
But African-Americans certainly developed a special fondness for the deli, as symbolized by a 1960s ad for Levy’s Rye Bread (“You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye”) featuring a black boy eating a deli sandwich; Malcolm X liked it so much that he famously had his own picture taken alongside the ad. Bayard Rustin, the black civil rights activist, was eating a knish on a New York street corner in 1970 when he was spotted by Robert M. Morgenthau, a Jewish politician who had just lost the race for governor. “I’m eating the reason why you’re not governor,” Rustin told him, referring to the fact that one of Morgenthau’s opponents, Nelson Rockefeller, had campaigned more frequently in delis.
Michael Twitty is an African-American chronicler of Southern foodways who converted to Judaism in 2002. He speculated that African-Americans “got a taste for a reasonably inexpensive, novel, tasty meal,” with a “similar taste profile” to Southern cooking. “After all,” he said, “if you grew up eating country ham on a biscuit, then it wasn’t too far to go to eating pastrami on rye.”
Ted Merwin, who writes about theater for the paper, is the author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” (NYU Press). He teaches religion at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.