‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’: Culture, Not Just Corned Beef

Growing up Jewish in the nation’s capital in the mid-20th century we took for granted Sunday morning bagels, lox and cream cheese from Parkway, Posin’s or Hofberg’s Kosher Deli. “Deli” is short for “Delicatessen,” a German word meaning “a place to find delicious things to eat.” Immigrants brought the tradition to America in the late 1800s.

The fusion of Central and Eastern European recipes and available ingredients in the U.S. led to the heyday of delis in the U.S. in the 1930s, when about 5,000 were open in New York City.

I never dreamed that as an adult many decades later, I would go to the now year-old Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum at 575 3rd St. NW to see a special exhibition — “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli.

The exhibit, a blend of nostalgia and evolving tastes, illustrates how American Jews preserved tradition and built community through the experience of food. Jonathan Edelman, CJM’s Collections Curator, points out how Washington, D.C., differs from other major cities. Therefore, it was imperative to add local flavor.

When many local Jewish families moved west across town from Silver Spring, Maryland, they found a vacuum when it came to delis. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, where Jews migrated directly from Eastern Europe, D.C. wasn’t an international port. So, the Jewish population settled later in all quadrants of the city migrating from Baltimore and beyond when government jobs after WWII lured families to settle in the area. Many Jewish entrepreneurs followed to open small family businesses to support the government workers.

Still, as a kid, I remember traveling to New York — Carnegie (which closed in 2016), Stage, Sixth Ave or Wolf’s — for that thick Reuben, pastrami or corned beef on rye.

When comedian Jackie Mason played at the Kennedy Center in the early 1980s he called me one Sunday morning and said, “Let’s go to a deli for brunch.” I told him that D.C. was not New York and delis were scarce. We had to drive to the suburbs; he couldn’t believe it.

In New York, many of the brick-and-mortar delis began as pushcarts—street vendors. Katz’s opened in NYC in 1888 and the oldest continuously operating deli in the U.S.

When I lived in L.A., Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills was a popular hangout. Regulars, including TV talker Larry King, held court with creative artists at his own table every morning.

Lots of familiar celeb faces and bold face names are in this exhibit as well as politicians who have long campaigned at delis. Many well-known movie scenes were filmed on location at delis including some from Elvis’s last film, “Change of Habit” — with Mary Tyler Moore and Ed Asner at Glassman’s Deli in L.A. And let’s not forget the memorable 1989 film scene from “When Harry Met Sally” that takes place at Katz’s Deli on the lower east side of NYC, and the now famous line “I’ll have what she’s having.” It’s not forgotten in this exhibit that covers a broad cultural landscape and time frame. There’s something for everyone — reminders from days gone by to the present — from history to pop culture.

Locally, Mel Krupin, the late, local restauranteur, exemplified the stereotype of the deli culture — a larger-than-life personality, funny, sometimes brash and knowing regular patrons like family.

It’s not just the food that is memorable, but it’s an experience combining entertainment, lifestyle and an integral part of Jewish culture. The exhibit captures that. You’ll even find a card box with recipes from the museum’s permanent collection. “Nostalgia makes people happy,” Edelman said. “Remember the pickle bar at many delis.”

Evolving tastes and dining patterns, less red meat, rising food costs, health concerns and animal rights changed with the times, but delis are making a comeback if the local Call Your Mother is a barometer. Young professionals line up for bagels every Sunday at their stand at the Dupont Circle Farm market. They serve nostalgia with each bagel, even though the calorie and health-conscious seldom eat the traditional heavy meals these days.

The exhibit reflects other lifestyle changes as well. Matchbooks from popular delis are displayed from the days when smoking was de rigeur. That was an inexpensive way to advertise.

The exhibition was originally organized by the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. D.C. curator Edleman said that he included new research and items to recognize the contributions of the local D.C. Jewish community to deli culture. Menus with shockingly inexpensive prices are displayed. In 1936, Mogen David Delicatessen Magazine even published a fair price list in an effort to prevent price gouging.

Edelman recalls visiting the Second Ave. Deli in Manhattan and the photo from a previous era of the waitress with red lipstick on her teeth and beehive hair.

“There’s comfort in deli food,” says Edelman. “You might have to watch your sodium intake, but you’ll still eat smoked fish. It’s a balance between tradition and health.” He added, “When I’m sick, I still want chicken soup. I grew up with it.”

Today, with the popularity of air fryers even schnitzel and latkes can be prepared with minimum oil. We can expect to see more artisanal delis popping up across the country.

Members of the press at the exhibit preview enjoyed tasting authentic bagels, cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon) and traditional black and white cookies from Washington’s newest deli, Beresovsky’s, located across from Nat’s Park at the Navy Yard. This exhibit truly appeals to all the senses and whets any appetite.

“People look for the authentic — whether matzoh balls or black and white cookies,” said Edelman.

That’s why the local angle with authenticity is an important part of the D.C. exhibit. The exhibit feels complete and is certainly enhanced by the local additions. It runs through Aug. 20.

Related programs scheduled include Deli Nights; History of Cured Meats; History of Rye Bread; The Deli as a Gathering Space and more.

For additional information, visit Capitaljewishmuseum.org.

Elvis Presley with deli employee Joe Guss at Glassman’s Deli and Market, Los Angeles, 1969. From the Bonar Family Collection.

Snack at Manny’s Delicatessen, Chicago, 2010. Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

Charles Katz, owner of Katz’s Kosher Supermarket, poses with cuts of kosher meat at the store’s location at 20 University Blvd East,1960s. Capital Jewish Museum Collection, Gift of Alex Mates.



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