The History of the “Deli” in America

Hundreds of millions of sandwiches are consumed daily in the United States. To say Americans are fans of this type of food would be an understatement. Many of these sandwiches have roots in the Delicatessen. Here’s what you need to know about the history of the “Deli” in America.

What’s in a Name?

Delicatessen is a German word that first appeared in the English language in the late 1800s. The word is plural for Delikatasse, which can trace its roots back to the Latin term delicatus, meaning “giving delight or pleasure.” In America, the first shortened version of the word deli probably came into existence in the mid-1900s, just after World War II. But the history of the deli in this country pre-dates the use of the word.

American vs. European Delis

European and Jewish cultures have had a significant influence on the American delicatessen. While both offer high-quality and delicious deli meats, American-style delis are different from European ones in several ways.

Delicatessens in Europe only sell high-quality cheeses and meats. They don’t prepare sandwiches or food. Delis in Europe are also considered fancy places to purchase both imported and locally-produced ingredients.

In contrast, American delis are more similar to Russia’s kulinariya. Those outlets sell both raw ingredients like high-caliber meats and cheeses, as well as prepared food, including breads, soup, and baked goods.

The History of the American Deli

The massive immigration of the late 19th and early 20th century brought many things to America (including our founder Nick Ferrante, Sr.) that we still enjoy today. Great delicatessens were born in this country during that time frame, with roots going back nearly 150 years.

Some of the most famous delis and their foods have Jewish roots. Between 1880 and 1924, roughly two million Jewish immigrants settled in this country, bringing their food and customs along. At the same time, over five million German immigrants came to America, also opening small food shops featuring cured meats like sausages, liverwurst, knockwurst, and bratwurst.

The first U.S. delis were simple mom-and-pop storefronts that served up smoked and cured meats and sausages. The stores were passed from generation to generation, particularly in the Northeastern and New England cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

America’s first delicatessens were in New York City in the early 1880s. But Sprague’s Delicatessen in St. Louis, Missouri, is the first documented as using the term in 1884. As the Jewish and German populations in New York City continued to increase, kosher delis began opening throughout the area, with 1,500 delis in existence in the city in the 1930s.

People loved the convenience of these small retail outlets. There seemed to be one on every corner. And, depending on who owned the deli and their nationality, you could find other ready-to-eat items like pickles, canned goods, and mustards.

Modern Day Delis

Americans shortened the word delicatessen to deli in the mid-1900s. At the same time, more people began to frequent these stores as the menus expanded beyond the owner’s ethnic roots. For example, pastrami had become a popular item in delis, but only the Americanized version of it. The European version was dry and served without any accompaniments. The American version is soft and served in a sandwich made from fresh rye bread with mustard.

The classic deli remains a popular place to eat and gather. There are still several versions of the original delis in New York City that serve delicious pastrami sandwiches and have a rich history. Many delis today, however, also have full-service bakeries, kitchens, and even wine shops attached.

Although deli food is somewhat simple, how it is displayed and served matters. What is equally important is the freshness of the food and the customer experience. Modern delis, whether they are standalone shops, chains, or part of your favorite grocery store, understand how to make an engaging and enjoyable experience for their clientele.

A Quality Deli Experience at Nick’s of Clinton

Now that you know a bit more about the history of the deli in America, you’re probably thinking of creating your favorite sandwich or maybe trying something new. When it comes to the freshest deli meats and the friendliest experience, look no further than Nick’s of Clinton.

Nick’s has a full-service meat counter and is proud to provide a variety of specialty meats and cheeses in its deli – all sliced to your satisfaction. We also offer daily lunch specials from our hot food bar and feature pre-made sandwiches and wraps from our grab ‘n go section. Need catering? We have that, too! Contact us today or visit our store to let us help you.