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A Slice of History (With Mustard on Rye)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I hopped off a downtown bus and onto the sidewalk of East Houston Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, braced against the cold wind and early brunch crowds trolling the area’s crop of relatively new boutique cafés. And then, in the distance, I saw it: Katz’s Delicatessen — its sign a little rusted, but the deli nonetheless an ancient giant in an even more ancient neighborhood.

I was there to meet Sheryll Bellman, the author of a new book that aims to preserve a salient element of the American Jewish tradition, and, at the least, to give a few aspiring cooks an excuse to try some new Hanukkah recipes. “America’s Great Delis: Recipes and Traditions From Coast to Coast” (Ten Speed Press) is a compendium of history — sociological and gastronomical — with a sprinkling of humor that seems fresh from a familiar grandmother’s kitchen. (“Is it a wonton? Is it a pierogi? No — it’s a kreplach! And do not confuse them.”)

Though the idea for the book began on the streets of New York, the seeds were planted decades ago in, of all places, Phoenix. As Bellman and I squeezed into one of Katz’s lines of Formica tables, she told me about her “corned-beef-deprived childhood” in the Southwest, where her grandfather, “a real Jewish cowboy, with a ranch and a gun in his truck,” settled. “It was very important to my grandparents and parents that we were Jewish, even though it wasn’t easy,” Bellman explained. “I was the only Jewish girl at school, and I’d read ahead in the history books to see if any Jew was mentioned, because if so, I’d be absent from school that day.”

The one place where Bellman did feel at home was another Southern locale: El Paso, Texas, where her family frequented Mac’s Delicatessen, now featured in Bellman’s book. “I just loved walking in there and feeling like people knew me and my family,” she recalled. “In my little-girl mind I associated being in a deli with being Jewish and being with people who loved you and liked you and knew you. That was very nice for me. And I love the food! And I didn’t get it in Arizona,” she said, chuckling.

Years later, after a stint studying microbiology at the University of Arizona and a brief tenure in medical school in Michigan, Bellman and her husband moved to New York. They’d been before, in the late ’60s — a time when the Lower East Side wasn’t such a quaint, perfect-for-Sunday-brunch neighborhood — but the Bellmans were lured by delis like Ratner’s, which was famous for its onion rolls. Bellman began to write. First she worked on a book about Christmas windows in the city, but then turned to more familiar territory: the world of Jewish food.

“At first I thought, well, there are so many books about Jewish food, what do I have to contribute?” Bellman said as we sipped Katz’s egg creams. “But then I thought, I love the research, I love the history, and what about a book about delis?” The book started out focused only on New York, until Bellman’s publisher convinced her to expand her deli worldview. “I thought, well, is there anywhere else but New York for delis?” she said. “But I figured, well, they know better, and as it turns out there were these old-time places, even in Jackson, Miss.!”

Bellman traveled to delis in New York and Los Angeles and conducted the rest of her research by phone and, well, chance encounters. She remembers one night in particular when she and her husband, out for after-theater drinks, met another Jewish couple who mentioned their love of Attman’s Delicatessen in Baltimore. Recently Bellman had struggled with obtaining historical materials from Attman’s, but by the end of the night she acquired contact info for Leonard Attman, an uncle in the family. “This woman said, ‘Oh, well, I know Leonard is in Florida right now!’” Bellman said, laughing. “I called him, he called me right back, and now we have a wonderful working relationship.”

Coincidences aside, compiling the wealth of culinary knowledge in the book wasn’t a picnic for Bellman. As she notes, deli owners like to keep their timeworn recipes a secret — perhaps because they’ve never even been written down, but instead passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. “It was hard,” she said with a sigh. “It took some pestering. They’re most protective of how they do their meat; they all say they do it differently. They say.” Bellman winked. The book boasts a catalog of former Jewish deli secrets, from the 2nd Avenue Deli’s chopped liver to Canter’s Deli’s brisket of beef (rubbed in ketchup and mustard).

Mouthwatering recipes aside, Bellman’s book serves as a thorough and readable chronology of the Jewish culinary experience. Before readers get to the instructions for Attman’s bread pudding, they’ll learn the origins of deli culture — from the pushcarts of the early 20th-century Lower East Side streets to the differences between kosher and nonkosher delicatessens. Bellman will be the first to note that New York is the original home of the deli (“To be honest with you, you can eat chicken soup anywhere, but it just doesn’t taste the same in Phoenix as it does in New York”), and with good reason: New York was once home to 140 Jewish grocers, 131 kosher butcher shops, and 100 seltzer-bottling plants. Today few of these shops remain, though dinosaurs like Katz’s, Streit’s Matzo and Guss’ Pickles serve as reminders of the past.

When pressed to pick a favorite New York deli, Bellman sputtered. She loves Katz’s and Carnegie, but can’t really pick one, and it’s clear she’s developed relationships with everyone she interviewed. (“Bee-yoo-ti-ful!” exclaimed Terre, a waitress photographed in the book. Terre glimpsed “American Great Delis” while she waited on us at Katz’s.) But, as Bellman noted, “the wonderful thing is that they’re still here, ‘cause they’re closing and dropping off.” Two delis profiled in the book have either shuttered or are on the way to closing: Hurricane Katrina claimed Kosher Cajun in New Orleans, and the 4th Street Deli in Philadelphia has changed hands. “When a deli is sold to someone who’s not family, you never know what’s going to happen,” Bellman said. Thanks to Bellman, Cajun’s cayenne-spiked stuffed cabbage and 4th Street’s “famous Passover sponge cake” will live on.

As far as Bellman is concerned, her book has achieved some wide-ranging impact already: A non-Jewish woman in San Diego recently asked her how to make schmaltz after reading the book, “and who makes schmaltz anymore?!” And Bellman, a self-professed good cook, admits she’ll probably try a babka recipe she unearthed. By the time we left Katz’s, a line snaked out the door, but I couldn’t imagine the cold outside; the smells, noise and faces in the deli exuded a warmth that I’m sure won’t be going away anytime soon.

Rebecca Milzoff is a reporter at New York magazine.

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