A Retrospective – By Elijah Douresseau
The food-centric exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center – I’ll Have What She Is Having: The
Jewish Deli, has come and gone. The walkthrough experience was on display for Angelenos and
tourists from mid-April to September 18th and told the story of a people who came to the
country and started a food movement that birthed a hyphenated ethnic group – fleeing war and
persecution to pursue freedom and opportunity.
Even some weeks after visiting, I’m still savoring the various infographics, props and general
crash course in delicatessen business practices the exhibit presented. I’m a native of Los
Angeles, but it was not until my adulthood that I appreciated the number of Jewish-style delis in
the sprawling landscape of the city.
As food-rich as the various regions of LA are, it can be hard to find monuments that stand the
test of time. Especially restaurants. I’m talking decades upon decades. The food culture does
acknowledge family businesses that have stood the test of time, even in their changing of hands
and managerial revamps. But delis have a special presence to them that keeps them stuck in time – though operators still need to do a few things to maintain their businesses in modern climates.
Of course, I was craving some kind of tall, meat staircase of a sandwich after finishing up at the
Skirball. The dining facilities at the Cultural Center did their best to accentuate their
programming by providing approximations of menu selections at a full-fledged deli, but I was
going to hate myself for paying almost $20 for a sandwich that only acted like a deli sandwich
entree. But I’m glad I entered the café space.
Extending the miniature education of the exhibit were portrait photographs of deli personnel in
2022. These were some of the souls of various genders, races, and walks of life who worked at
notable delis in the city. True to LA’s multifaceted and intersectional nature, the Jewish deli was
the vocational home to employees who were not Jewish but had a zeal for serving up the
historically ethnic food with a keen eye for integrity.
The photos still bring a smile to my face. They give me some hope that we will be alright in this
crazy world of ours. People will always need to work to survive, to provide for their families.
That has been a universal truth for a staggering amount of time. This often requires individuals,
generations even, to learn from their neighbors and functionally live in a new culture of values.
In LA fashion, the result can be a fascinating hybrid of cultural exchanges and encounters that
gives us more of a compassionate heart toward the fellow humans we’re living amongst.
Here's hoping the exhibit did well enough to travel around the country and make a firm case to
return to the Cultural Center in some years. I appreciated the food history, but it seems I am
enamored with a story of pilgrimage and identity that so many of us can likely identify with.