How Pastrami Sandwiches Became An American Kosher Staple
America is famous the world over for being a melting pot. One of the best side effects of having people from all around the world living in the U.S. is the effect such diversity has on food. If you've ever had a pastrami sandwich, you have America's melting pot to thank for the pleasure. Here is the fascinating story of how pastrami, a humble meat from Eastern Europe, became one of America's favorite Kosher staples.
Once Upon a Time, Before Refrigeration...
Refrigeration, and thus the inhibition of the growth of infectious bacteria, has been a relatively new concept for humans. Prior to the discovery that electricity could be used to make things cold, people developed all kinds of interesting ways to keep meat from spoiling. One of the most popular ways was to add a whole bunch of salt and wait. Salt, as you may know, is a diuretic, even at the microbial level. It causes water to exit cell membranes, which kills bacteria, preventing it from spoiling the meat. Some examples of this are corned beef, bacon, and (you guessed it) pastrami.
Pastrami became a popular dish for Jewish populations because it was simple. It can be made from any reasonably fatty (and Kosher) meat, and all it really takes is salt, spices, and time. It's easy for Rabbis to oversee, and thus it became a widespread Kosher dish all through Lithuania, Turkey, Romania and Greece.
The Pastrami Exodus
Many years after pastrami became rooted in Jewish culture, Hitler rose to power. Though Jewish immigrants had been arriving on American shores since before America was even a country, the eastern states saw a large influx of Jewish immigrants before, during and immediately after World War II, further melting Jewish and American traditions. The new American residents brought with them their favorite recipes; pastrami, then called pastrama, became an instant favorite. The spelling was changed to Americanize the word, and pastrami became a popular meat not only for Jewish patrons but for everyone. It quickly became available in butcher shops all over the east coast.
Pastrami + Rye = Heaven
It wasn't long before Jewish butchers and delicatessen shop owners were experimenting with new ways to serve pastrami to their hungry customers. Because it was served primarily in Jewish establishments, it never developed the American proclivity to the meat and cheese combination, and remains traditionally cheese-free to this day. Instead, the winning combination was found when a hearty bread that could hold up to the mountains of delicious, juicy pastrami was combined with mustard for tang and coleslaw for crunch. Thus the pastrami on rye sandwich was born, and Americans took to it like a duck to water; as Jewish traditions and culture spread from east to west, the sandwich became available all across the country.
Today you can get a great pastrami sandwich in all corners of the United States. You can buy pastrami at your grocery's deli counter and enjoy it anywhere. You can even make your own if you are enterprising and patient enough.
If you have never had the pleasure of biting into all the delicate flavors of a great pastrami sandwich, it's time you stop depriving yourself. Just remember when you do experience this delight, that there is a whole mountain of history behind that mountain of meat on your sandwich, and maybe it will make your experience more enjoyable. If you have had pastrami sandwiches before and you're sitting here reading this, what are you waiting for? Get yourself to your nearest butcher or deli and order up that delicious, Kosher creation and enjoy!