The entrance of the United States into World War II in December 1941 ultimately transformed the relationship of many Jews to their religion. Obliged to eat Army rations, Jewish soldiers found it almost impossible to keep kosher on a regular basis. In G.I. Jews, Deborah Dash Moore’s book about Jews in the Army, Moore discusses the ways in which many Jewish soldiers, especially those raised in kosher homes, were compelled to modify their eating patterns in order to survive on army rations. “Eating ham for Uncle Sam” became, Moore has found, a patriotic act of self-sacrifice. But not all servicemen were obliged to subsist on nonkosher food; the practice soon developed of sending hard salamis, which keep for a long time without refrigeration, to sons who were serving abroad. For the most part, however, Jews learned that they could do without familiar foods and still maintain their Jewish identity.
Louis Schwartz, a waiter in the Sixth Avenue Delicatessen who was famous for selling more than $4 million worth of war bonds, claimed to have invented the famous slogan “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army,” which became a permanent catchphrase at Katz’s Delicatessen and other delicatessens in the city. The slogan seems to have originated with Hal David, a lyricist whose Austrian Jewish parents owned a kosher delicatessen in Brooklyn; David is best known for a string of 1960s hit songs with the Jewish composer Burt Bacharach. David penned it while serving in the Army in the Central Pacific Entertainment Section, based at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu; the unit developed songs, sketches, and musicals to be performed for the troops throughout the Central and South Pacific. (The lyric continued, “Don’t just send him things to wear/ Send him something he can chew.”) The slogan carried a potent unconscious thrust; given the phallic associations that salamis have, sending one to one’s son was perhaps unconsciously attempting to give him a boost of virility in order to enable him to win the war and return safely to the bosom of his family.
At a time when all things identified with Germany were suspect, the German origin of delicatessen food was potentially problematic. As the New York Times pointed out, the word delicatessen was “of Axis origin,” along with frankfurters, hamburgers, and bologna. However, the Times added reassuringly, the situation was not one to fret about. After all, even King George and Queen Elizabeth had recently feasted on Nathan’s hot dogs at a picnic in Hyde Park given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When the filler in the sandwich was a luncheon meat of foreign origin, it became happily domesticated—no longer a foreign intruder but a “perfect symbol of the American melting pot.”
Jews at home learned, however, that they could maintain their ethnic identity without corned beef and pastrami. The need to send large quantities of food overseas to feed the soldiers led to severe shortages on the home front. The government’s Office of Price Administration initially limited the supply of rubber and gasoline before moving on to food items, beginning with sugar and coffee. In 1942, the government instituted a “Share the Meat” campaign in which Americans were asked to limit their consumption of meat. But rationing still became inevitable, given the fact that up to 60 percent of the nation’s meat supply was reserved for consumption by the military—the average consumption of meat by each soldier was a pound per day—and by the Lend Lease Program that shipped enormous quantities of food (in the first half of 1943, 45 million pounds of beef alone) to the civilian populations of Europe. One soldier’s wife admitted that she fantasized about eating steak more than she did about having sex.
Jews were heavily represented in the meat-processing industry in New York, both kosher and nonkosher; indeed, of the five thousand employees in this business, one expert estimated, more than a quarter were Jewish. But with the advent of meat rationing on March 29, 1943, both butcher shops and delicatessens no longer had access to much of their product. The major associations of kosher delicatessens calculated that the selling of meat products accounted for about 90 percent of their overall business, with about 75 percent of their sales in the form of sandwiches and 15 percent in the form of cooked dishes.
Beef rationing was instituted with an initial limit of twenty-eight ounces a week per person; it was estimated that the wealthiest third of the population consumed an average of five pounds of meat a week and the poorest third an average of only about one pound a week. Red stamps, issued by the government, were required to buy meat, fish, and dairy products; blue stamps were needed for canned fruits and vegetables. Each citizen, including children, received two ration books a month, containing forty-eight blue points and sixty-four red points.
Delicatessen items carried a premium above the point value of raw meat—two additional points per pound if unsliced and three additional points per pound if sliced. If a patron bought cured meats from a delicatessen to make his or her own sandwiches, the red stamps were required. A meal consumed in a restaurant or prepared for take-out did not require stamps, so many delicatessen customers bought complete sandwiches.
Many citizens hoarded these stamps so that they could make a single large purchase. However, the numbers of points needed to buy particular foods fluctuated on a daily basis. As the memoirist Ruth Corbett recalled, it was cause for celebration when the number of stamps was reduced for a particular item, such as when thirteen kinds of kosher meats were taken down by one point. Frankfurters were in such short supply that meat packers were enjoined to stretch their filling by using beans, potatoes, or cracker meal; they suggested substituting bread and gravy for meat.
Nevertheless, the government recognized that the consumption of red meat by the citizenry was essential in order to maintain wartime morale. The historian Amy Bentley has argued that beef, long a symbol of status and wealth, increased in symbolic value during the war partially because of both governmental and private-industry propaganda. The government instituted price ceilings on meat in order to prevent inflation, but this led to a decrease in supply and triggered an extensive black market. That black market was particularly pronounced in delicatessen meats, especially corned beef and tongue; the following year, four of the major kosher sausage companies in New York—Zion Kosher, Real Kosher, Brownsville Kosher, and Benjamin Rachleff—were convicted. (Leo Tarlow of Zion Kosher was sentenced to a forty-day jail term, although the jail time was suspended.) In May 1945, the delicatessen manufacturers, distributors, and retailers all threatened to strike in order to try to compel the OPA to make more meat available.
In order to comply with federal guidelines limiting meat consumption, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia requested that no meat be sold on Tuesdays in New York City, with the only exemption being for hot dog and hamburger stands, which were asked to encourage substitute foods like fish. While many delicatessens had been open seven days of the week, they almost unanimously decided to close their doors on these “meatless Tuesdays,” with a few remaining open only to sell beer. Irving Krasner, a jobber in the delicatessen business, married his wife, Selma, on a Tuesday and went back to work the next day, while Barbara Solomon’s dad used his precious Tuesdays to take her and her brother for leisurely boat rides up the Hudson or on excursions to the Bronx Zoo.
Periodic shortages continued, even after the end of the war; about a tenth of the thousand kosher delicatessens in the city shut down in September 1946 for lack of meat. The delicatessen industry associations called a meeting to discuss closing down all of the stores for at least a month, given that the shops had only 10 to 20 percent of their usual merchandise. Kosher delicatessens were especially hard hit, with that reduction in their normal supply and with some meats, such as corned beef and tongue, virtually unobtainable at any price. Louis Schweller, the president of the Bronx Delicatessen Dealers Association, predicted that most of the thousand or so remaining kosher delicatessens would have to close. But also affected were the seven thousand or so delicatessens that were mostly indistinguishable from grocery stores. In all, according to Jack Kranis, attorney for the Joint Council of Delicatessen Store Dealers, as many as ten thousand employees—waiters, countermen, and kitchen help—could be left jobless.
Food writers in the press suggested using nonmeat substitutes, canned meat products, or such innovations as “corned beef spread.” Restaurants and hotels were asked to “stretch” their meat by preparing hash and nonrationed meat such as kidney, liver, and tripe. A horse-meat dealer in Newark announced plans to open an outlet in Manhattan, incurring the wrath of former mayor LaGuardia, who called the consumption of horse meat “degrading and humiliating” and pointed out that eating horses had been rejected even by the “peasants of Europe and the coolies of China.” Fortunately, the shortages eased before horse meat became a staple of the New York diet.
That delicatessen food was seen as a special treat was shown by the ongoing efforts of the 52 Association, a group that started in 1945 after a restaurant owner picked up the tab for a group of blind sailors who had dined in his restaurant. The owner and his friends then created an organization in which fifty-two men would each be asked to contribute fifty-two dollars a year to pay for a weekly party for wounded veterans, serving food from delicatessens and gourmet food stores. By the early 1950s, the organization boasted more than two thousand members in New York alone and had expanded its efforts to include not just sponsoring the social events but helping the veterans to find jobs. According to one journalist, the organization’s philosophy was that there is “not much wrong with a man’s spirit that cannot be bettered by large portions of pastrami and cheesecake rendered under warm, friendly conditions.”
Murray Handwerker, the son of the founder of Nathan’s, took an indirect path to bringing delicatessen into his store, which initially served only hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, and chow mein. While serving overseas, he became introduced to foreign cuisines, as did many of his fellow soldiers. Upon his return, he decided to experiment with serving different foods. Murray took advantage of his father’s vacation in Florida to start serving shrimp and clams. Only after he started making a profit from seafood did he bring in (nonkosher) delicatessen foods. “The postwar years were a turning point,” he recalled. “Tastes were changing. And I, coming home from the war and going into the business, was part of that scene.”
While the war exposed Jews to other types of food, it also provided opportunities for non-Jews to learn about Jewish food. Lieutenant Colonel Harold Dorfman realized how much he missed delicatessen food when he served as navigator in a B-24 bomber on September 12, 1944. As the plane approached its target, the submarine pens of northern Germany, the pilot was ordered to inquire and record what was in each crew member’s mind. Each responded, in turn, that he was thinking about his family back home—each, that is, except for Dorfman, who said that he was consumed with a desire for a hot pastrami sandwich. The response from the pilot: “How do you spell pastrami?” The crew endured an eight-hour attack by enemy gunfire by laughing and joking about the episode. But to actually taste the unfamiliar delicacy, most had to wait until they arrived in New York eight months later on their way back to Fort Dix.
Excerpted from Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. Copyright © 2015 by Ted Merwin and reprinted by permission of NYU Press.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at Dickinson College (PA), where he is Founding Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life.