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Tracing the History of The Delicatessen: 4+ Captivating Details

Tracing the History of The Delicatessen: 4+ Captivating Details

The delicatessen is one of the world’s most beloved types of culinary establishments. Want a succulent bite of turkey on two slices of pumpernickel? The deli has you covered. In need of a delectable potato salad? Hit the deli. Want to get your hands on the best corned beef you’ve ever had? There’s one place for you, and that’s the deli.

If you want to go deeper than this surface-level deli experience, though, you’re in the right place. I’m a food fanatic in general, but delis have a special place in my heart. So I’ve plumbed the depths of deli history to learn about the immortal shop’s origins, and I’ve assembled all that knowledge here. So if you’re ready to dive deeper into the history of the deli, read on.

What Is a Deli?


A deli (short for delicatessen) is a variety of specialty food stores / restaurants. Most famously, these establishments sell sandwiches, packaged morsels like coleslaw and potato salad, and bagels. However, they might also offer cold-cut meats and sliced cheeses outside of sandwiches.

However, as we’ll see in a moment, delis can also sell a much wider variety of specialty foods, from imported bread to jarred delicacies. 

Of course, it would be a serious misstep to talk about delis without mentioning Kosher delis. These establishments sell deli foods that follow Jewish dietary restrictions (delis that adhere closely to kosher law, for example, don’t sell cheese alongside beef products). They’re famous for offering delectable morsels from bagels to pastrami-on-rye sandwiches.

Where Did the Word Delicatessen Come From?

If you’ve ever been in a deli and have taken a philosophical turn in between bites of a Reuben or BLT, you might’ve wondered why they call it a deli, anyway. What is a delicatessen?

Shortening the word delicatessen to deli obscures the word’s interesting roots and history. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “delicatessen” is originally German and referred to fine or specialty foods. In turn, the German word comes from the French “délicatesse” and Italian “delicatezza,” both of which mean delicateness. Interestingly, though, the translated German word is a sort of double entendre: essen is the German word for “meal,” so the word has an added punch.

The word delicatessen entered the English language amidst the surge of German immigration in the nineteenth century. During this time, German food salespeople opened establishments to sell specialty foods from their home nation, often displaying the sign delicatessen to advertise their specialty food (the OED first records the word delicatessen being used this way in 1853).

After this point, however, the word “delicatessen” shifted in meaning, referring not just to the foods but to the place where the foods were sold. From there, non-German speakers began to abbreviate the word from “delicatessen” to “deli,” and the rest is history.

What Is the Difference Between a Deli and a Delicatessen?

katz's delicatessen

Long story short, there’s no technical difference between a deli and a delicatessen – the former word is simply an abbreviation of the latter. However, there might be a slight difference in practice.

In some contexts, “delicatessen” might imply more formality, as in the case of the classic New York eatery Katz’s Delicatessen.

Who Invented the Delicatessen?

We can continue our exploration of the delightful institute known as the delicatessen by asking: who, exactly, invented the deli?

It’s difficult to say exactly who invented the delicatessen, simply because delicatessens are more a category of establishment than one single thing. 

Most likely, the “inventor” of the delicatessen is a heroic meat-and-bread lover who was just trying to do an honest day’s work – and changed the face of sandwiches in the process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Check below the answers to some common questions.

When was the first delicatessen?

Just as it is difficult to say who invented the delicatessen, it is challenging to say what the first delicatessen was. Some deli aficionados credit Dallmayr, a German specialty foods company, as the first deli in the world. The company began importing bananas and other tropical foods as early as 1700, giving some credence to this claim. 

However, older delicatessens likely existed before Dallmayr – after all, Germany imported food before this time.

The same goes for American delis as we currently understand them. Sprague’s Delicatessen in St. Louis was the first store to use the word “delicatessen” in its name. Katz’s claims to be the oldest Kosher deli in New York City. However, delis existed throughout the country before either one.

Until some brave archivist delves into the history of specialty food businesses everywhere, the world may never know which delicatessen came first.

What Is a Delicatessen?

Long story short, a delicatessen is just the same as a deli. The longer word is simply the origin of the word “deli,” and in the context of the United States, they are interchangeable – though “delicatessen” can sometimes be more formal.

That said, the word delicatessen is still used in Germany to refer to specialty shops, and is not often abbreviated.