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The idea for I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli, which opens April 14 at L.A.’s Skirball Cultural Center, was fittingly hatched by its curators over lunch at Langer’s, which serves what the late Nora Ephron described in The New Yorker as “the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world.” The exhibit is an inquiry into community, ethnicity, tradition, economics and the multiple meanings of taste.
It traces the Jewish American deli’s arc from its pushcart origins feeding poor immigrant tenement dwellers in the early 1900s — look for a plaque about New York City’s Russ & Daughters (est. 1914), which announced last month that it’s in development with Time Studios on a TV drama about its history. A century later, today’s luxe artisanal projects (Wexler’s, Birdie G’s) serve those immigrants’ successful, assimilated descendants.
“The show unravels that the deli is a construction of different foodways from across Europe coming together,” says co-curator Cate Thurston, adding: “It’s a search based in comfort for something that feels authentic to one’s roots.”
The exhibition features paraphernalia ranging from a lox-slicing knife to a cash register. The uniform of late Nate ‘n Al’s waitress Kaye Coleman is on display. (Her fans included regular Larry King, who once said “she was just a waitress the way that Sigmund Freud was just a doctor.”) There’s a black-and-white photo of Guns N’ Roses lounging at Canter’s, whose Kibbitz Room has featured the likes of Fiona Apple, Joni Mitchell, HAIM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The exhibit makes the case that the deli has played a significant role in nurturing Jewish identity and sensibility, especially for non-observant Jews. “I’d almost venture to make the argument that the more secular you are, the more value you place in deli,” observes co-curator Lara Rabinovitch, a producer on the Jonathan Gold documentary City of Gold.
A centerpiece of the show is a reel of deli-set scenes from TV and film, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Mad Men, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as When Harry Met Sally’s iconic Meg Ryan faked-orgasm bit, filmed at Katz’s in Manhattan and ending with the punchline that lends the exhibit its title. “There’s a certain sensibility in the deli that’s more casual than in a fine-dining restaurant,” explains co-curator Laura Mart. “It’s a place where people can express their authentic selves.”
I’ll Have What She’s Having is a reminder that dining, like every other social phenomenon, is perpetually in flux. “There’s a lot of memory associated with Jewish deli — that’s a wonderful thing to trigger in an exhibition,” says Rabinovitch. “People assume that delis haven’t changed, but delis have changed remarkably over time” — in response to religious, cultural, financial, and other shifts. “It’s what makes them so interesting to think about.”
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