A Bowl of Sour Cream and Other Old Deli Menu Items

By: Joan Ginsberg

While a simple Google search will turn up tons of articles, blogs, and even books about the decline of the Jewish deli in America, it’s harder to find pictures of menus and other concrete examples of what Jewish deli food used to be – and what made it different from modern delis.

So Sy and I were delighted when a recent pilgrimage to Miami to visit The Jewish Museum of Florida and its exhibit on Florida Jews and food yielded a display case full of Jewish deli menus from the 40’s and 50’s. Favorites like corned beef, pastrami, latkes, and blintzes were there, but we were especially interested in those items you just don’t see anymore.

Jewish Museum of Florida




















Take a look at some of the offering on these menus. Do you know any modern delis serving some of these items?


The Famous Restaurant menu had ALL of these, all well as sliced brains. For those of you unfamiliar, stuffed derma is kishka, and ptcha/pitcha is calf’s foot jelly. Honest.

Eggplant, of course, is not an unfamiliar food. It was a staple of all of the deli menus we saw, though, and we think it would be unusual to find it on a modern Jewish deli menu, unless it was an Italian/Jewish mash-up.

A few of the more traditional J

ewish delis, like Kenny and Ziggy’s in Houston, still have herring of one form or another on their menus now, but you wouldn’t find a Jewish deli without it in the mid-20th century.



















Everyone in the USA serves sour cream with their baked potatoes, and Jewish delis who still sell latkes (potato pancakes) serve it with sour cream. But we were tickled to see the ways sour cream was served at Wolfie’s. a famous Miami Beach deli. A bowl of sour cream, anyone?





















A variety of herring was served everywhere, like pickled, matjes (soused) and schmaltz. These terms refer not only to the brine used to preserve the fish, but to the fish itself. Schmaltz herring, for example, is fatty fish caught just before spawning, while matjes herring are usually young and immature fish. And everyone knows what gefilte fish is, right?









Of course, the printing of menus didn’t really take off until after WWII, when restaurants had widely available refrigeration and other amenities that allowed them to broaden their culinary offerings. Prior to that, menus were small and featured what was fresh and local.











Bernstein’s Jewish Home Cooking, considered the first Jewish restaurant in Miami, 1927-1938.


Flashback Friday – Pickle Barrel Deli, 1978

Sy has the original newspaper article photo engraved and mounted on a plaque in his office.

Sy has the original newspaper article photo engraved and mounted on a plaque in his office.

Pickle Barrel Deli – mistakenly referred to as the Pickle Barrel sometimes – wasn’t Sy Ginsberg’s first. That honor goes to Mister Deli on 7 Mile near Evergreen in Detroit. But Pickle Barrel – his second – would make him a star in the Detroit deli scene, and ultimately lead him down his true path as a processor of the finest corned beef in the country.

Located at 12 Mile and Evergreen in Southfield, it was the embodiment of everything that a classic Jewish deli should be. It was open almost 12 hours every day of the week, and the menu was huge. If you could find it in a Jewish cookbook, you could find it at Pickle Barrel.

It was the grueling hours and work of running a successful restaurant like Pickle Barrel that made Sy dream of doing something else  – like make a better corned beef. So he ultimately sold out and became the corned beef king we know today.

But we thought it would be fun to share some memories of what Pickle Barrel was. So we are recreating the review of the store by the “Anonymous Gourmet” at The Detroit Free Press, which was published on April 20, 1978. Yes, it’s about a specific restaurant, but it offers a lot of insight into what a customer could expect at a top-notch Jewish deli. “Thanks, Mrs. Ginsberg” is recreated here exactly – including the misspelling of Faney Ginsberg’s name.

This deli’s long on taste but short on cost

      The AG got a tip on a delicatessen last week from someone who, at a glance, looks like the type to order a corned beef with mayo on white, untoasted. Having checked on the tip, the AG learns an old lesson once again – namely, that the proof of the pudding is not in the glancing but in the eating.

The pudding at the Pickle Barrel, solid rice and moist, plump raisins in an indecently creamy custard invigorated with grated orange, is ambrosial. It ended a gargantuan Sunday noon feast that left both diners packed to what they guessed were the armpits. Still, when it arrived in its frosty stainless parfait cup, the click of spoons dipping in for “just a taste” never stopped till the self-styled tasters reached bottom. Was it orange? Or was it lemon? Maybe both? And so it went. And so the pudding went.

Before the pudding, there were an order of blintzes, a dressed-up tongue sandwich, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzoh ball and who knows how many slices of new pickle, cut thick enough to crunch and offered by the mini-barrel at each table to keep the diner’s mouth busy while he tries to make up his mind.

     THE PICKLE BARREL is not the place to go for a quick pastrami on rye. It is a place that requires one to make decisions. Pastrami on rye ($2.30) or pastrami, corned beef and tongue with eggs, pancake style ($2.80)? Pastrami, corned beef, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on an onion roll (Pickle Barrel Treat, $3.15), or pastrami, liverwurst, Swiss cheese, tomato, onion and Russian dressing in a four-decker on rye ($3.40)?

The pastrami predicament is typical. The Pickle Barrel’s menu is enormous, featuring all the standard delicatessen items and then a few, in several alternative combinations.

Once the decisions have been made, the food comes lickety-split and, since the open kitchen sits smack in the center of the C-shaped dining area, most customers can watch their orders being assembled.

The chicken soup (75 cents a cup, 95 cents a bowl) shows up the way children like it, not quite salty and peppery enough for adults, but with a matzoh ball that spans the taste of generations by giving way at the slightest pressure from the side of the spoon. The correct building of a matzoh ball – from matzoh meal, chicken fat, egg and soup liquid – is no mean trick. Miss something in balance or timing and you may as well use the thing next time you tee up.

   GEFILTE FISH ($2.50), a formed but still fluffy mousse of carp, pike, whitefish, stock, onion, egg and carrots, is even trickier. The stuff from jars is leaden and devoid of sublety compared to what one gets from home kitchens and the Pickle Barrel. The AG wondered aloud how such homey gefilte fish got to the restaurant. The waitress smiled knowingly.

“This IS a home kitchen,” she said.

Fannie Ginberg’s home kitchen, to be precise – Fannie being the mother of Sy, one of the restaurants owners. That would explain the featherweight matzoh ball the and delicate gefilte fish, the way the outermost layer of blintz (delicatessen’s answer to crepes, cannelloni, and egg rolls) stays crisp while the inner folds go noodly and soft, the crackling crust on bread with spring-back fresh innards, the rice pudding’s zesty citrus accent. Just like home – on a good day.

          GO HUNGRY and be prepared to wait – before the meal and after. The Pickle Barrel is a big place, but it also has a big menu and offers big portions, both of which take some time to digest.

In addition, its patrons have a golden opportunity to revive the time honored Two Cents Plain ritual. Two Cents Plain (seltzer water, for the uninitiated) is imbibed during and especially AFTER the meal, as an aid for the overfed faced with having to get up and walk to the door.

And midday feast for two, from soup to pudding, came to a measly $12 at the Pickle Barrel. For two cents more, as listed on the menu, a person has a right to sit and sip and digest – or so Fannie Ginsberg, bless her, still believes.


Do you have a memory of Pickle Barrel – or maybe Mister Deli – that you could share? How about another old fashioned deli?

Deli and Pickles – A Love Affair

BY: Joan Ginsberg, social media marketing specialist

New dills.

New dills.

The first week in February is “Shape Up With Pickles Time” (no, I did NOT make that up), and what better food to discuss on a Jewish deli blog than pickles? We’ll just skip the “shape up” part. 😉

Every lover and eater of Jewish deli food knows that it doesn’t matter if you prefer corned beef, pastrami or tongue on a sandwich – what really matters is that they are all served with a slice of heaven called a pickle.

You might ask – like Tevye did in the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof – when did this tradition get started? My answer is the same as Tevye’s – I don’t know. Neither does anyone else, it seems.

The pickle – more properly a pickled cucumber – has been around since at least 2400 BC, according to the New York Food Museum, and their health benefits were praised by Aristotle in 850 BC.  When the Israelites left Egypt in their wandering quest for Caanan, they bemoaned the loss of the pickled cucumbers they had enjoyed.

Eastern European Jews, who immigrated to the USA in large numbers in the latter part of the 19th century, brought their dietary habits with them, and one of those habits was eating black or dark bread with pickles. It is only reasonable that when those food traditions began to expand to the masses through deli restaurants, they included the pickles that were also commonly manufactured by Jewish immigrants.

Today, only a small number of Jewish delis exist when compared to 100 years ago. But those that remain still serve pickles with their sandwiches. In the USA, dill pickles are preferred to sweet pickles by a roughly 2 to 1 margin, and dill is what you will find in any respectable deli.

What may differ – often by geography – is what kind of pickle the deli uses. In Detroit, our home city, there are “old dills” or “new dills”. On the east coast, these same pickles are called “sour” and “half sour”. We have seen them called “ripe” or “green” in Cleveland. All have been barrel cured, the old (sours or ripe) longer than new (halves or green). Some delis use both and will offer you a choice, but many restaurants – especially outside of the older east and midwest markets -don’t use a barrel cured pickle at all. Their pickles are cured with vinegar, and do taste quite a bit different than a barrel cured pickle.

Besides manufacturing Sy Ginsberg’s Corned Beef, United Meat & Deli also acts as a distributor of certain deli-related items to our customers. Naturally, that includes pickles. UMD sells pickles made by Hermann Pickle Farms in Garrettsville, Ohio. We think they make the best food-service pickle available. My personal favorite is Dick’s Perky Pickle – a horseradish dill without equal.

The next time you enjoy a selection from your favorite deli, pay attention to the pickle. 

What’s your favorite – sour or half sour (old or new)? Tell us in the comments.

For National Soup Month – Chicken Matzo Ball

BY: Joan Ginsberg

There is only one way to write about the intersection of National Soup Month and deli:

 Chicken Matzo Ball Soup

A simple looking dish, this soup was full of wonderful flavor.

A simple looking dish, this soup was full of wonderful flavor.

Whether you call it matzo, matzoh, matza, or matzah – this soup is a constant among Jewish delis everywhere. I believe that matzo soup is the standard that all Jewish deli should be judged by. No matter what their corned beef or pastrami tastes like, a true deli has to be able to serve this soup and do it justice.

Here are two things we think you should look for –and find- in a good chicken matzo ball soup.


Rich, chicken-y tasting broth. The broth can be as clear as a bell or full of bits and pieces of chicken and vegetable from the stock-making process, but it absolutely needs to taste like the chicken simmered for hours in water full of vegetables. No actual chicken or vegetables are required, and some delis serve chicken soup with vegetables and/or chicken separately.

Some restaurants also add a food color called Egg Shade to their stock in order to give it a visually appealing, bright yellow appearance. But as Duke Ellington said in 1931, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

The distinctive yellow is food coloring.

The distinctive yellow is food coloring.

Perfectly balanced matzo ball. The matzo ball doesn’t have to be huge, although many delis do make them so large that there is barely room for broth in the bowl. It does have to be flavorful – you should able to taste the matzo meal, chicken fat, egg, and soup liquid that went into the making. It should be tender and easily sliced with the side of a spoon, without the sphere falling to pieces after removing the first chunk. Miss something in the balance – not enough flavor or too soft/hard – and your soup has failed.

While this soup is visually appealing, the broth and matzo were very bland.


Do you have a favorite place to eat matzo ball soup? Tell us in the comments or post a picture on our Facebook page.