Bedlam with Corned Beef on the Side: The Jewish Delicatessen in Baltimore Pt. 6

Posted on April 19th, 2017 by

Written by Barry Kessler. Originally published in Generations 1993, reprinted in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways.

Part VI: The Full-Scale Delicatessen Restaurant

Miss parts 1 – 5? Start here.

Sussman and Lev delicatessen, c.1930. Gift of Martin Lev, JMM 1991.140.2

Sussman and Lev delicatessen, c.1930. Gift of Martin Lev, JMM 1991.140.2

From the 1920s onward, deli restaurants thrived in Jewish neighborhoods in East Baltimore, around North Avenue, and outward to the northwestern suburbs, Several delis appeared in commercial districts, notably the Globus near the west-side garment district, Mandell’s on Baltimore Street downtown, and Awrach and Perl near the big Howard Street department stores. By general agreement, Sussman and Lev, Awrach and Pearl, Ballow’s, Nates and Leon’s, and Attman’s are considered the outstanding names in a throng of memorable institutions, each of which rang a slightly different variation on the theme of sliced meats, smoked fish, hot dogs, sandwiches, and pickles.

The delicatessen restaurant got a strong boost with the arrival of supermarkets. These clean, spacious stores with wide selections and low prices forced small groceries of all kinds to adapt or go out of business. For many of those specializing in delicatessen, the best alternative was to expand upon their incipient function as a restaurant, or convert fully to restaurant service, while maintaining the old atmosphere. Other social trends were pushing them in the same direction: Jewish families were prospering and could better afford to eat out; they were spreading out around the city; and, as younger Jews had less direct knowledge of European tradition, they were less likely to prepare Jewish specialties at home, but still wanted to participate in these traditions, at least on special occasions.[1]

Interior of Sussman and Lev, c.1930. Gift of Martin Lev, JMM 1991.140.3

Interior of Sussman and Lev, c.1930. Gift of Martin Lev, JMM 1991.140.3

Sussman and Lev’s was probably the first full-scale delicatessen restaurant in Baltimore, and one of the longest-lived and best-known. In 1915, Jacob Hyman Sussman became the proprietor of the New York Import Company, which specialized in smoked fish. He lived above his store at 905 East Baltimore Street. Sussman was 23 years old, unmarried and just naturalized, an immigrant tailor from Svisloch, a village in the Russian province of Minsk.[2] New York Import had first appeared in the City Directory two years earlier, under the ownership of Abraham Gelfand, who resurfaced briefly in 1918 as a partner in the company with Jacob Sussman.[3]

Sussman’s company thrived. In 1922 it was offering “imported and domestic herring, smoked fish, canned goods and delicatessen” at 917 East Fayette Street; Jacob H. and Isador Sussman and Nathan Leo were the proprietors. Both Sussman families lived uptown at 2217 Bryant Avenue.[4] In 1926 Jacob Sussman was secretary-treasurer for Nathan Davis and Company, a competing fish seller; Morris Scherlis was its vice-president. In the same year, however, Sussman went into partnership with Carl Lev, an immigrant from Poland or Russia – via Chile – who had had a delicatessen in New York.[5] They were importers, wholesalers, and retailers of “appetizing delicatessen and all kinds of herring, smoked fish, and imported candies” at 923 East Baltimore Street. The “New York Import Company…has been recently taken over by SUSSMAN and LEV,” read the letter they sent “to our many customers who have been dealing with these last fifteen years.”[6]

Letter indicating that Sussman & Lev are taking over the New York Import Company, February 3, 1926. JMM 1991.140.1

Letter indicating that Sussman & Lev are taking over the New York Import Company, February 3, 1926. JMM 1991.140.1

Photographs of 923 East Baltimore Street around this time reveal the operation of the business. One shows the interior, with two parallel counters, each with scales and slicers, piled high with meats and breads. The walls are lined with canned goods in neat rows; two dozen salamis hang from a shelf. Cans of Lord Calvert and Hotel Belvedere coffee compete with boxes of crackers and barrels of pickles for floor space, and a marble-topped table and four bentwood side chairs squeeze into the back. The menu is a framed sign offering appetizing salads, sandwiches, pickles, fish, delicatessen, and soft drinks.

In another photograph the countermen stand at the end of the central aisle, while customers are seated at the table, one in a derby hat. Wrapped candies and dried fruit, a slab of halvah, and pieces of whitefish and salmon lie on the counters in the foreground. Photographs at the Maryland Historical Society of exterior views show a huge vertical lighted sign reading DELICATESSEN and windows full of nuts, packaged products, and smoked fish. Signs in English, Yiddish, and Russian announce “all kinds of sandwiches/luncheonette, wholesale and retail appetizing/delicatessen.”[7]

In 1935 the restaurant expanded, adding an art-deco style bar, a ceramic tile floor, and a section of tables in booths.[8] A Viennese baker from New York was brought in to prepare “delicious rolls, pie, cakes and pastries.”[9] 1939 brought air-conditioning and a catering hall upstairs, which could be rented for bar mitzvah luncheons and other small receptions. A menu from this era shows that the restaurant served an enormous variety of dishes. Sandwiches ranged from lox and cream cheese on a bagel to a “Broadway Special” combination of tongue, spiced beef, corned beef, salami, sweet gherkin and lettuce. One could dine on “cold schov with hard egg,” broiled veal steak with fresh mushrooms, and pie, washed down with beer, almond smash soda, or buttermilk. Sussman and Lev’s remained a favorite of Jews who worked in East Baltimore long after the neighborhood’s ethnic makeup had changed. It went out of business around 1951.

Continue to Part VII: Sandwich Innovation

Notes:

[1] See Jack Kugelmass, “Green Bagels: An Essay on Food, Nostalgia, and the Carnivalesque,” YIVO Annual, 1990, for a fascinating exploration of delicatessen traditions carried to their extremes by younger generations.

[2] Interview with Harold Sussman (July 1991).

[3] Baltimore City Directories. In 1930 Abraham Gelfand was treasurer of the Pickle Products Company.

[4] Baltimore City Directories, 1913, 1922.

[5] Interview with Martin Lev (July 1991).

[6] Gift of Martin Lev, 1991.140.1

[7] Photos by Hughs Company, Baltimore City Life Museums Collection.

[8] Interview with Harold Sussman (July 1991).

[9] Baltimore Jewish Times, January 2, 1940.

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Bedlam with Corned Beef on the Side: The Jewish Delicatessen in Baltimore Pt. 5

Posted on April 17th, 2017 by

Written by Barry Kessler. Originally published in Generations 1993, reprinted in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways.

Part V: Heyshe Cohen and a Place to Sit

Miss parts 1 – 4? Start here.

Harry Cohen’s delicatessen in East Baltimore (1400 block of E. Baltimore Street), 1919. Gift of Sidney Cohen, JMM 1988.132.1

Harry Cohen’s delicatessen in East Baltimore (1400 block of E. Baltimore Street), 1919. Gift of Sidney Cohen, JMM 1988.132.1

The earliest Baltimore delicatessen for which a full history can be given is that of Harry E. Cohen, who purchased the shop at 1427 East Baltimore Street from Kalman Lapides in 1919. Harry, or Heyshe as his friends called him in Yiddish, came to Baltimore at age 16, around 1906, with his brother Sam. His parents were petty tradespeople who sold various wares and foodstuffs in a village square in the Russian provice of Chernigov. Harry first worked at Schloss Brothers as a buttonhole-maker and presser. In 1913 he married Sarah Kaplansky, just off the boat from Novozybkov, Russia, and they had three children.

By 1919 the Cohens had saved enough money to purchase the little delicatessen. They lived above the shop and Mrs. Cohen took in boarders and laundry to make ends meet. She also waited on customers and prepared noodle kugel, potato latkes, knishes, and challah for sale. According to his son, most of Cohen’s business was takeout – the bagging of a “few pennies’ worth” of bread and meat with a dollop of mustard in a paper cone for workingmen’s lunches.[1] The meats were corned beef, pickled for thiry days in barrels of brine, as well as rolled spiced beef, rollade (meat roll), and hard and soft salamis. Other specialties were sauerkraut and pickled onions, cucumbers and green tomatoes.

Cohen claimed in a 1963 reminiscence to have been the first delicatessen in Baltimore to provide a place for people to sit and eat inside the shop.[2] The little wooden bench was soon filled at all times of day with customers who congregated to exchange news over sandwiches and snacks. Many came to discuss, in Yiddish with bits of English, the politics of the Arbeiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle], with Cohen and his friend Henry Turk, the managing editor of the Baltimore office of the Yiddish newspaper Forverts. Indeed, a photograph of the shop, probably taken in the 1920s, shows the bench and a chair squeezed along one wall, across from a counter and rows of shelves stacks with provisions, mostly bottled or canned.

For a time, Harry Cohen lived in Washington, DC, but he had the misfortune to select a location on Park and Georgia Avenues where the first self-service Giant supermarket was to open. Competition from the discount grocery drove him back to Baltimore, where the Cohens became proprietors of the Sanitary Delicatessen on North Avenue near Linden. From the 1960s to 1982 the family operated the Suburban House Restaurant on Reisterstown Road.

Harry Cohen’s little bench was a transitional stage, presaging the arrival of the full-blown delicatessen restaurant. In Europe, village taverns and city restaurants owned by Jews served delicatessen foods, but there was no precedent for the bounteous counter, laden with specialty groceries, meats, and fish, at which one could buy sandwiches, soups, and whole meals to take out or eat on the premises. Yet this formula would be elaborated with great success as a uniquely American Jewish phenomenon and would take its place as a new type of ethnic restaurant.

Continue to Part VI: The Full-Scale Delicatessen Restaurant

Notes:

[1] Telephone interview with Sidney Cohen {December 1992).

[2] Harry E. Cohen, “I Remember….Specialties of an Early Delicatessen,” Baltimore Sun, April 21, 1963, magazine, p. 2.

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Bedlam with Corned Beef on the Side: The Jewish Delicatessen in Baltimore Pt. 4

Posted on April 12th, 2017 by

Written by Barry Kessler. Originally published in Generations 1993, reprinted in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways.

Part IV: A Decade of Deli

Miss parts 1 – 3? Start here.

In 1907, of the eight delicatessen shops identified by the City Directory, two were in West Baltimore and six in East Baltimore. Harry Caplan, Harry Goodman, and Frank Hurwitz were joined by Charles Norberg on Central Avenue and Adolph Rothman on Bank Street. Wolf Salganik, a butcher who had been in East Baltimore since at least 1899, was listed as the owner of a delicatessen at 925 East Lombard Street.[1] L. Strauss and Company, near Lexington Market, appeared as a delicatessen only in the alphabetical listing. Given the name and location, this business was probably owned by, and catered to, German Jews.

In 1909 – 1910, the Baltimore City Directory listed seventeen delicatessens, thirteen of them in East Baltimore. Harry Caplan, Harry Goodman, Frank Hurwitz, Herman Buderak, Joseph Edlavitch and the Salganik Meat Products Company were clustered in four adjoining blocks of East Baltimore, Lombard and High Streets, while Joseph Amdur, Margaret Flum, Philip Resnick, Abram Linder, Ellen Jolden, Jacob Wollwich, and Kalman Lapides ranged further east. Two new delicatessens were located in the growing Jewish area near West North Avenue and two were near Lexington Market.

One of the delicatessen owners in 1909 – 1910, was Kalman Lapides. Lapides, a tailor, had a grocery on a South Baltimore corner in 1900. Perhaps the shop failed, since two years later he was again listed as a tailor, now on Little Gough Street in East Baltimore. From 1906 until 1919 he had a delicatessen at 1427 East Baltimore Street between Eden and Caroline.

By 1912, several non-Jewish establishments were among the fourteen delicatessens listed in the City Directory, including Louis H. Rettberg, R. Welforth and Son, John E. Schaninger, and Max Votel. Votel’s advertisement described him as a “wholesale and retail dealer in German produce.” The word “delicatessen” had expanded beyond the immigrant community and was being applied more generally to fancy groceries.

Continue to Part V: Heyshe Cohen and a Place to Sit

Notes:

[1] Salganik, an immigrant from Kiev, was listed as a delicatessen owner, but most likely his business was largely in raw meat. In the early 1930s Salganik went in to manufacturing delicatessen products and selling beef and pork at wholesale. From a large plant at Lombard and Exeter Streets he supplied numberous retail delis and groceries with corned beef, pastrami, rolled beef, salami, bologna, frankfurters, meat loaves, and sausage, as well as cured, smoked and cooked hams and bacon. Later he developed an extensive business as supplier to the Army and supermarkets. (Interview with Gordon Salganik, August 1993.)

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