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Hungry? Here's An Exhibit For You To Nosh On

A pair of deli workers wearing aprons and white hats stand behind a counter, surrounded by classic deli dishes, with bright signs behind them showing the menu
Manny’s Delicatessen in Chicago.
(Alamy Stock Photo
/
Courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center)
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A black and white photo of Vienna Beef workers inspecting sausages at the Chicago factory. Sausages are hanging in rows everywhere around them
Vienna Beef workers inspect sausages at the Chicago factory.
Vienna Beef museum/Courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center)

When Skirball Cultural Center curator Laura Mart thinks of the Jewish deli, it’s not the food, but the sounds, that come to mind:

“You walk in, and there are people coughing, eating, scraping plates, taking their orders, laughing, chatting,” she said. “Many people say it’s their home away from home.”

It’s that hustle and bustle that Mart and co-curator Cate Thurston sought to capture in “I’ll Have what She’s Having,” an exhibit exploring the Jewish American experience through the lens of the Jewish deli.

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The show traces how the deli evolved from a specialty shop for immigrants into a national institution, bringing deli culture to life with food displays and mid-century memorabilia including menus, matchbooks and bright neon signs. The exhibit also touches on the deli’s role as a community space: Mart says for many Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives in the U.S., delicatessens provided a livelihood, a purpose and a place to gather.

It’s the theme of immigration that runs through the exhibit — Thurston says the exhibit is not only for show, it makes an argument for deli food as a “uniquely North American cuisine,” a fusion born of Eastern Europeans encountering new cultures in the U.S.

Members of Guns N' Roses sitting at a Canter's Deli booth.
Members of Guns N' Roses sitting at a Canter's Deli booth.
(Skirball Cultural Center)

Mart says this is reflected in the regional variations of delis. “You can find rice and beans on deli menus in the Southwest, and health food options in California,” she said.

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No two delis are exactly alike, and menu variations can be as granular as matzo ball size — some delis serve up smaller balls, while others go large. Mart says part of the fun was learning about the stories behind the recipes, like the reason for the giant matzo balls at L.A.’s own Canters Delicatessen on Fairfax:

“The person whose duty it was to make the matzah balls in the kitchen was developing arthritis in her hands,” said Mart. “As it progressed, she couldn't make them smaller, she just kept making them bigger and bigger, so you end up with these enormous softball-sized matzah balls.”

A man and a woman working behind the counter at a deli.
Harry and Rena Drexler at North Hollywood's Drexler's Deli.
(Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center)

The deli has not only influenced American palettes, it’s also made its way into pop culture. The exhibit features a clip reel of deli moments on film from Seinfeld to Mad Men, including the exhibit’s namesake scene — yes that scene — from When Harry Met Sally.

Thurston says these deli moments in movies and TV shows reflect the “landscape of feelings” the deli evokes.

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“The deli is so many different things,” said Thurston, “So I think if somebody has a reaction to it, where they find it alluring and sexy, that's the deli for them. The deli could be a place where they go with their grandmother, and it's none of those things, right?”

The exhibit continues through early September.

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