“Salami and Gomorrah.”
“Barnum & Bagel.”
Or, how about “Once Upon a Bagel”?
Those are just three of the approximately 120 current or former Jewish delicatessens that have served matzo ball soup, corned beef sandwiches, and the occasional wisecrack to Chicagoland customers, including those in Evanston, since the late 19th century.
And now, the past and present of the Jewish deli is shown in an exhibit called “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center (ILHMEC) in Skokie.
First, the title.
“I’ll Have What She’s Having” is a quote from the famous deli scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.” If you saw the movie, you’ll remember. If not, a clip from the film is part of the exhibit.
And then, the location.
While a Holocaust Museum may seem like an unusual site for an upbeat and sometimes humorous display, Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections at Exhibitions at ILHMEC, says it’s absolutely appropriate.
Delis were “places of coming together for immigrants and Holocaust survivors,” Weininger explains.
“These are the places they gravitated towards.”
In fact, some delis, including the well-known Kaufman’s, in Skokie, were founded by a survivor (in this case, Maury Kaufman), and hired survivors as employees.
Kaufman’s is one of the 40 or so Jewish delis still in Chicago and vicinity. About 80 more are no longer in business.
One of those not slicing the bagels anymore is Salami and Gomorrah, on Central Street in Evanston from the late 1970s through mid-1981.
The owner, the late Martin Smith, thought the name “Salami and Gomorrah was hilarious,” says his daughter, Nicole Smith.
“I didn’t even understand the reference,” Nicole adds, “until I was in high school.”
Nicole says “if my dad was here today [he passed away in 2020], he’d get the biggest kick out of the deli exhibit, and would probably want to cater the opening day.”
Most delis have family names, such as Manny’s, or names keyed to locations, like the former Carnegie Deli, near Carnegie Hall in New York City, or else to places where Jewish immigrant founders may have come from. Vienna, Austria was the original home of the men who founded Vienna Beef in Chicago, which is still operating.
But Evanston/Skokie seemed to be a magnet for deli “schtick.”
Besides “Salami and Gomorrah” in Evanston, a few miles away in Skokie you could find “Barnum and Bagel.”
“My grandparents lived in Skokie and went to Barnum & Bagel,” says Adam Dlatt.
Now Dlatt owns “Once Upon a Bagel,” in Highland Park, Winnetka, and Northbrook.
His company is the presenting sponsor of the Museum exhibit. (The exhibit was put together by the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, but the Museum here has added many items specific to Chicago-area delis).
“The most important thing is understanding that delis have always been part of the Jewish community,” Dlatt notes. “Any time there is any life cycle event, what do Jewish people do? They eat.”
“Delis”, Dlatt says, “are places where people can mourn, can celebrate, and be with their families.”
While the days of Jewish delis close to each other in immigrant neighborhoods are gone, the delis may be making a comeback.
A Jewish deli called Mensch’s will open in Evanston this spring, after two successful test runs as a popup/takeout convinced owner Jack DeMar that a bricks and mortar store will succeed.
After all, everybody needs lunch. Or at least a nosh.
(Author’s note: Obviously, this exhibit was planned well before recent world events, but perhaps deli food can be comfort food for uncomfortable times).
“I’ll Have What She’s Having” opens Sunday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and runs though April 14.