The French origins of the delicatessen

It was just this past Mother’s Day when I joined the rest of my family, grabbing a plate, and slowly selecting from a variety of wonderful-looking deli food, which had been selected from a local delicatessen and served at our daughter’s home.
The tasty, aromatic food made such an impression on me, bringing back New York memories, that I decided “delis” was a worthy topic to investigate and write about with relish (no pun intended).
My earliest memory of a deli was the time in The Bronx when, as a kid, I walked into a wonderful-smelling store having a large wooden barrel in front with a sign reading, “A Nickel A Pickle.” Tongs on top of the barrel cover invited us to select our pickle of choice.
In reality, only the smallest pickles were a nickel, but it was fun, fishing for a smaller pickle, which tended to slip between the bigger ones.
Only recently have I become interested in the origin of delis. My prior research was in the area of the tasty offerings of delicatessen food.
However, the origins of the delicatessen make an interesting story.
Historians believe that as a result of the French Revolution, wealthy families were forced to decrease their extravagances and minimize their household staff.
In the process, many chefs of wealthy families lost their jobs.
Seeking new sources of income, the former chefs began working independently, processing and producing prepared meats, cheeses and foods that they would sell to those who could still afford gourmet food.
Gourmet stores began opening all over Europe after the French Revolution wherever there was demand. Formerly well-off people were able to afford these higher-quality prepared foods.
The word “delicatessen” started as the French word, delicat (fine), then into delicatesse (fine food), Italian delicatezza and Delikatesse in German, and finally arriving in the United States as delicatessen.
As the numbers of East European Jews streamed into New York and other ports during the late 1880s, the number of butcher shops increased, as well.
Before the delis became popular, most Jewish immigrants preferred to cook and prepare their own meat.
An 1899 survey of 75,000 people living on the Lower East Side, found 10 delis, 10 sausage stores and more than 1,000 kosher butcher shops, all selling 600,000 pounds of kosher beef each week.
Since butchers competed for customers, they began to offer prepared foods such as pickled meats, frankfurters and canned goods, in addition to the usual cuts of kosher meat.
As the demand for prepared foods grew, many former butcher shops added a grill and some tables and chairs. Voilà! The delicatessen was born.
New York City, having the largest number of Jews, has always had a great selection of delis, but the wartime meat shortage and rationing had a distressing effect on butchers and delis, as did the movement of young people to the suburbs after World War II. ended.
I still remember as a teen whose family never ate out, the thrill of seeing the pickles, breads and other noshes stacked in the middle of the table at Katz’s New York Delicatessen.
The number of delicatessens may be down, but wherever there are Jews, there will be a deli or at least an attempt at having one.
Delis vary as to quality, but the New York City delis are considered to be the standard for American Jews.

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