At Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center until September 18, and slated to come to the New-York Historical Society on November 11, a new exhibit seeks to tell the history of the American Jewish kosher deli—and to recreate the sights and experiences, if not the tastes. Adam Nagourney writes in his review:
The exhibition is an exploration of the food and culture that thrived in New York and later Los Angeles, with their large Jewish and show-business communities, along with cities like Chicago, Houston, Miami, and Indianapolis. As such, it surveys the story of immigration as a force behind changing American tastes: the pushcarts, as the curators note, foreshadowed the food trucks now operated by a new generation of immigrants. A grainy film clip near the start of the exhibit shows police officers fanning out to clear carts from a New York street in the early 1900s, a scene reminiscent of the 2020 crackdowns in Los Angeles on unlicensed food vendors.
But there is also something elegiac about the exhibit, a reminder that delis and the food they served are no longer as prevalent as they were 50 years ago, even in Jewish life. The show is an exercise not only in history, but in nostalgia. There were an estimated 3,000 Jewish delis in New York City in the 1930s; now there are just a few dozen, according to the New-York Historical Society.
But Lara Rabinovitch, a food writer and historian who helped curate the exhibition, said this was not intended as a sentimental journey. “When I came on board I had two caveats: One is we had to treat the Jewish deli as part of the American landscape,” she said. “And two, we could not succumb to kitsch and nostalgia. When it comes to Jewish food, deli or Jewish foo can evoke a lot of conversations and a lot of kitsch and nostalgia.”