The Origin and History of the American Delicatessen


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Delicatessen’s originated in Germany in 1700, when the food company Dallmayr imported what were then exotic fruits such as bananas, plums, and mangoes. Delis began to appear in the United States in the 1800s when waves of European immigrants, especially Jewish immigrants, began to found delicatessen businesses in New York City, catering to German immigrants and offering Kosher foods for people of Jewish ethnicity from all over Europe. Ted Merwin, professor of religion and Judaic studies at Carlisle College in Pennsylvania, and author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli explains that it was second-generation individuals who identified as Jewish, born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, who founded delis beyond the few on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The word “delicatessen” isn’t from the German “essen” or to eat, but instead finds its root in the Latin “delicatus,” meaning pleasurable or delightful. The word used in France is délicatesse, and in Italian, delicatezza. In Europe, these establishments were (and still are) regarded as fine food emporiums, selling luxury foods. Germany’s synonym for delicatessen is “Feinkost,” meaning fine foods. The emphasis on luxury or hard to find food items is expressed in other names for these shops, such as France’s épicerie fine or Italy’s gastronomia.

The style of deli that offered a broader range of foods, including prepared entrees and salads, originated in Russia’s kulinariya, and most modern U.S. delis follow that model. Some are counters only, while others have tables to sit at and eat. Delis started out serving foods that were traditionally eaten in small portions in Europe, largely because they were expensive. Leave it to America to supersize deli offerings, including gargantuan corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.

The history of the American deli has evolved to include shops representing a broad variety of cultures selling specialty meats and cheeses, salads, and prepared meals. New delis have found ways to expand their operations and appeal to a broad customer base by including signature items and vegetarian choices. But at their core, American delis retain classic elements from their German and Jewish roots, including bagels with lox, matzo ball soup, and a variety of pickles.

GOOD MANNERS: Table Settings

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