Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli — Ted Merwin

I love Jewish things. I like their culture and I like their history. So I decided this seemed like a great idea for a book. And it was. Following the migration of Jews from Eastern Europe over to America from the mid 1800s, this is a snappy history of pastrami and delis and how they influenced culture in America. And Cardiff’s own New York Deli gets a mention too!

Stuff I learnt

Kellogg’s Cornflakes invented to stem illicit sexual desires:

Following the theories of an influential Presbyterian minister, Sylvester Graham (the inventor of Graham Crackers), the Kelloggs also feared that eating both meat and spicy food with any regularity would lead to sexual fantasies and masturbation; John Kellogg developed Corn Flakes in order, he declared, to promote sexual abstinence.

Pastrami is banned by NASA but encouraged by its Russian counterpart:

This violated numerous rules of space travel because NASA was testing out various kinds of food to see if they could be safely consumed in space without either flying into the astronauts’ windpipes or into the mechanical controls of the spacecraft. The Russians, by contrast, believed that it was important for astronauts to experience some pleasure and relaxation through having good food on board and had already experimented with giving their astronauts toothpaste tubes of pâté, cheese, chocolate, and coffee, along with tiny pieces of bread, candied fruit jelly, and bits of salami. Indeed, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on his first voyage in space, gobbled a bite-sized salami sandwich.50 (It was important for astronauts to be supplied with high-quality food because, as the historian Jane Levi has noted, the shift of fluid to the head tends to hamper the senses of both taste and smell, and American astronauts, as opposed to Russian cosmonauts, had been noticeably skinnier and weaker, with less of their food eaten, when they returned to Earth.)51 In the middle of the Gemini flight, Young suddenly inquired if his partner was interested in a corned beef sandwich. After the astonished Grissom took a bite, he noticed nervously that crumbs of rye bread were starting to float around the cabin and that the smell of the beef was beginning to permeate the ship. “It became instantly obvious,” he later recalled, “that our life-support system wasn’t prepared to cope with the high powered aroma of genuine kosher corned beef.” He reluctantly stowed the sandwich away. After the spacecraft landed, the astronauts were called on the carpet for their breach of the gastronomic rules of space. Representative George Shipley of Illinois complained that the sandwich incident was “disgusting.” Comparing the spacecraft to a surgeon’s operating room, he was appalled that the sandwich was permitted to pollute the sterilized space. George Mueller, the director of the Gemini Program, responded with a straight face that NASA frowned on “unauthorized objects such as sandwiches going aboard the spacecraft” and assured the congressmen that the agency had “taken steps, obviously, to prevent recurrence of corned beef sandwiches in future flights.”

Hillel the Elder invented the Schwarma:

Hillel the Elder, who lived during the time of King Herod and the Roman emperor Augustus (and who gave his name to the national Jewish student organization), devised a creative way to fulfill the injunction in the Torah that the Israelites should eat matzoh and bitter herbs to commemorate their enslavement to the Egyptian pharaohs. He enclosed the herbs, along with a goodly portion of paschal lamb, inside the bread, making a lamb-herb wrap. Indeed, the unleavened bread that Hillel used to make that first sandwich was likely not the stiff, fragile, crumbly stuff that is matzoh but rather a thick, soft, chewy flatbread like Indian roti, Mediterranean pita, Mexican tortilla, or Middle Eastern lavash.