Just a little off beat Big Apple history that I wrote for La Vita Locavore after reading a rye bread recipe.
After an enjoyable read of a Special Wednesday Edition of Sunday Bread- NY Rye I started thinking about just how such an Old World staple got identified as “good Jewish or New York style Rye”. New York claims many foods that were not invented in the Big Apple but rye bread is really about as European as it gets.
Not only is rye the most popular type of bread in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia, and Russia, it has been a staple since long before the discovery of the Americas. In a bread timeline, dark rye even made it to the British Islands as early as 500 AD. “Since the Middle Ages, rye has been widely cultivated in Central and Eastern Europe, and is the main bread cereal in most areas east of the French-German border and north of Hungary.” A year and two days ago I wrote a cute little diary called The Irish and Our Potatoes that mentioned the Holy Roman Empire being upset when those first Spanish explorers came back with starchy spuds to compete with the Staff of Life. By that time the “Body of Christ” being threatened by the lowly potato was mostly rye bread.
I remember a time when rye bread didn’t seem the least bit Jewish. It didn’t even seem like New York bread because I walked to either the French or the German Bakery, watched the fresh bread go through the automatic slicer and always ate both ends as I walked home. I remember when rye bread began an association with the Brooklyn Jewish community and it is a cute story, a progressive story even.
Rye bread going Jewish had much more to do with Madison Ave. than Flatbush Ave. It was and still is an advertisement. Rye bread is a New York City tourist attraction. The Stage Deli advertises their slogan next to a mile high fresser in the hotel magazines.
At the competition, the late great Leo Steiner, co-owner of the Carnegie Deli, the corned beef cornball comedian and the public face of Jewish food who was was eulogized by Henny Youngman as “the deli lama” and a man who “made New York taste good,” appeared in one of the great New York nostalgia commercials. In that television commercial, from behind the Carnegie counter Leo Steiner sold Levi’s Real Jewish Rye by saying in an accent that would make Jackie Mason jealous “It makes a nice samwich.” Perhaps that is why Jackie Mason defected in the 7th Ave. Pastrami Feud.
This story of progressive advertising began long before the Carnegie vs. Stage wars, back in the days when Leo Steiner was still working in his parents’ grocery store in Elizabeth, N.J. It was in 1961 when rye bread converted to Judaism.