Bedlam with Corned Beef on the Side: The Jewish Delicatessen in Baltimore Pt. 7

Posted on April 24th, 2017 by

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

Part VII: Sandwich Innovation

Miss parts 1 – 6? Start here.

Nates and Leon's advertising card for the #3 sandwich.

Nates and Leon’s advertising card for the #3 sandwich.

The variety of combination sandwiches offered by Sussman and Lev, not untypical of delicatessen fare of the 1920s, represented the innovations of a generation of immigrant sandwich-makers. As H.L. Mencken put it, “the Jewish mind was too restless and enterprising to be content with the old repertoire. It reached out for the novel, the dramatic, the unprecedented as it does in all the arts…It boldly struck out in the highest fields of fancy, and presently the lowly sandwich had been completely transformed and exalted.”[1] Besides raw materials from the Eastern European larder, delicatessens drew upon a vast variety of new American foodstuffs, with little regard for kashrut. By experimentation and evolution a host of new sandwiches entered American cuisine through the delicatessen. Many of these innovations came from New York, with its vibrant Jewish culture, and spread rapidly to other cities, including Baltimore. Others were invented here, two of the most notable by Nathan Ballow.

Nathan Ballow’s two claims to fame were the Easterwood Special – a half loaf of rye bread filled with bologna and a little mustard, named after the nearby park where the neighborhood boys played ball – and the hotdog and bologna combination. During the Depression many families made dinner out of the Easterwood Special, which sold for ten cents. Many remembered Ballow giving an Easterwood Special to beggars, always with the reminder that the recipient owed ten cents for it, to ease the shame of accepting charity.

Nathan Ballow’s hotdog and bologna combination entered the world of the Baltimore delicatessen by the mid-1930s. Joe Mandell, Ballow’s son-in-law, remembered how it happened: in the morning the countermen would cut off a few slices of bologna to make it look fresh, and once someone threw some of the slices on the griddle with some hotdogs and tried the combination.[2] It was an enormous success, copied by every delicatessen in the city and remembered by most of their patrons. It remains a deli staple to this day.

China plate from Ballow’s Delicatessen. JMM 1987.131.5

China plate from Ballow’s Delicatessen. JMM 1987.131.5

Nathan Ballow was an immigrant from Kiev who had worked as a cutter and tailor in East Baltimore for a few years after arriving in American around 1919. Known as a real “go-getter,” he opened a storke (little grocery) around 1925 at 2115 West North Avenue, in an area to which Eastern European Jewish families were beginning to move in considerable numbers. By the late 1920s his grocery had become a restaurant where neighborhood people enjoyed delicatessen without going downtown. It had become one of the focal points of the community.

Ballow’s attracted an almost exclusively Jewish clientele, advertising only on a Sunday afternoon radio program called Der Yidishe Radio Shtunde. The “noise, shouting, and tumult was wonderful to behold,” with at least half the people speaking Yiddish, remembered Ballow’s nephew years later.[3] It was a “creative Jewish atmosphere.”

Contributing to the ambiance were the smells of barrels of schmaltz herring, spices from the vats of meats cooking in the basement, and hotdogs and bologna on the grill. Herring was such a big seller that Ballow erected a huge sign reading “Headquarters for Good Luck Herring.” The busiest day was Saturday, despite the objections of several synagogues nearby. Nathan and his wife Sophie belonged to Har Zion, the largest Orthodox synagogue uptown, and kept kosher themselves. At some point during the 1930s, however, a mashgiach (kosher official) detected a problem with the kashrut of the food served, and following an embarrassing announcement in shul (synagogue), Ballow had to admit his place was not strictly kosher, but “kosher-style.”[4]

”Mandell’s Delicatessen”; c. 1950s. JMM 1998.16.13

”Mandell’s Delicatessen”; c. 1950s. JMM 1998.16.13

In 1956, with the Jewish community moving further northwest, Ballow went into partnership with his son-in-law Joe Mandell, far uptown in a shopping center at Reisterstown Road and Rogers Avenue. Mandell, son of an immigrant from Kovno, had left Polytechnic High School around 1928 at age seventeen to make sandwiches at Boris Katz’s well-known deli on East Baltimore Street.[5] When Katz sold his deli to Mandell, he teamed up with Morris Scherlis to buy out Nathan Davis’s smokehouse, and Scherlis and Katz supplied Baltimore delicatessens with most of their smoked fish for several decades. In 1940 Mandell opened a deli in the downtown business district, open 24 hours a day, which he described as a modern restaurant, delicatessen, and fountain.[6] His step-mother, Jenny Wohlberg, did all the cooking, and her roast brisket, soups, and kokletten (small meat loaves) attracted “crowds greater than we had hoped, greater than our initial facilities could satisfy.”[7]

Continue to Part VIII: The “Madhouse” Lunch Trade


[1] Baltimore Evening Sun, November 4, 1929.

[2] Interview with Joe Mandell (December 1992).

[3] Interview with Danny Ballow (October 1992).

[4] Interview with Shirley Ballow Rutkowitz (August 1992).

[5] Located at 1430 East Baltimore Street, it had been owned since about 1919 by Katz, a 1909 immigrant from Piesk, Poland.

[6] Baltimore Jewish Times, January 19, 1940, p. 9.

[7] Advertisement, January 19, unknown periodical. Jewish Museum of Maryland Vertical Files.

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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


[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


[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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