Bedlam with Corned Beef on the Side Part V

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 part 1? 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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