Delores on the Only Way to Eat Corned Beef by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

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“For me, the only way to eat corned beef is on rye bread with mustard. Maybe put coleslaw or Russian dressing, but that is already pushing it. Now, the shvartzes will walk in here and ask for corned beef with bacon, lettuce, tomato, swiss cheese, and mayonaise on white bread. It don’t make no sense to me, but I make it.

“I got my first job working in a Jewish deli 37 years ago. I was 16 when I moved to D.C. from Saint Mary’s County, Maryland. We were 21 kids and I am the oldest girl. My Mom was 15 when she had her first and 42 when she had her last. I moved out because my parents were alcoholics and I couldn’t live with my family anymore. I had an aunt in D.C. who let me stay with her while I tried to get on my feet.

“The first job I applied for was at the Baltimore Delicatessen on Bladensburg Road. There were two Jewish guys working there and I asked if they were hiring. It was 8:30 in the morning and they told me to start that minute. I came from the country and knew nothing about no Jewish or corned beef and gefilte fish. On my first day, I messed up everything. At the end of the day, they said, ‘You don’t know nothing from nothing, so we are going to have to teach you everything.’

Continues after the jump.

“Over time, they taught me how to speak Yiddish and how to be a waitress and a manager. I learned more here than I did from my family. In 1979, the two guys split up and one went to open Deli City on Bladensburg Road, where I have worked for 31 years. The other place has since closed. This place is my life. When I came at 16, I didn’t think that I would stay there. I wanted to stay until I got an apartment. At 17, I got my first apartment. and then thought that I would work some more until I got some furniture. After I got furniture, I stayed. Now, I have stayed all of this time working as a waitress.

“When I started, the neighborhood and clientele were all Jewish, there were no shvartves nowhere. We used to have stuffed cabbage, chopped liver, tongue, gefilte fish, potato pancakes, and a whole special Passover menu. In the 80’s is when the blacks started coming in. Now, we still get a few Jews, but it is predominantly shvartzes. As the clientele changed, the menu changed, too. When I started, you couldn’t mix corned beef with no cheese or serve any pork. With time the menu changed because people kept asking for pork chops or swiss cheese on their sandwiches. We had to change things because the shvartzes were the ones who were buying our food. Most of the Jews had moved away or died and young Jews aren’t eating corned beef every day. If we didn’t change, we would have been in bad shape. Even with all of the changes, we still have the best food in the area.

“All of my girlfriends ask me why I still work here. I work here because I love it and I make just as much money as a waitress as they do in their jobs. I always make sure the customer leaves with a smile on his face. I don’t know if being a waitress is good for everyone, but it has been good to me. I love to kibbitz with the people who come in here every day and I am proud to work in one of the last Jewish businesses on Bladensburg Road and one of the last Jewish delis in the District.”

Deli City Restaurant is located at 2200 Bladensburg Road Northeast.

27 Comment

  • As a fan of Jewish delis, this is one of my favorite People’s District interviews ever. I love how she still puts her Yiddish to good use! “Schvartzes”!

    Places like this used to exist in my neighborhood, long, long before my time here. How I wish they’d survived! I’m definitely going to visit Delores’ establishment.

  • Schvartzes is far from an acceptable word to be used in the modern age. It’s basically the Yiddish “negro”. I don’t care who is saying it, not cool.

    The corned beef is crap there anyways

    • Schvartzes in Yiddish comes from “Schwartz” in German, it means black, the color. There are negative words meaning “negro”, but Schwartz is not one of them.

      • mmmmm… depends where you live. Schvartzes is legit, as you said WHEN SPEAKING YIDDISH but it’s not really acceptable WHEN SPEAKING ENGLISH.

        Your suggestion that there’s no negativity to the word is a joke. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and the word in English was meant at the N Word because otherwise the person would have said “Black” because they were speaking English. Get it?

        That said, I think a Black person using it is just fine.

      • Thanks for the Deutsche lesson. Now here’s a Yiddishe lesson: the word schvartze is as derogatory as any. Its connotation is the same as the worst sort of slur for an African-American, the worst of which also comes from a word meaning “black” in a romance language. Well, here’s a word meaning “black” in a germanic language. Get it?

        Those of us who grew up in families with Yiddish speaking traditions understand the connotations of the word. It’s no longer acceptable in modern American society.

  • Shvartze actually just means black in Yiddish.

    • I agree the Yiddish concept for “black” is the basis for the word “schvartze”, but it’s no longer deemed an acceptable word. The n-word is also based on a word for black, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming highly offensive.

      Typically, when I’ve heard “schvartze” used, the speaker’s intent has been to convey a somewhat negative connotation. It hasn’t risen to the level of “nigger” in pure offensiveness, but it is considered derogatory in this day and age — a quick internet search will confirm that.

      All that said, given the context of the post, I hardly take offense at this woman’s use of the word. I hate the word police. I wouldn’t use this word, but I’m not offended when Delores (or a grandparent, for that matter) uses it. Others are entitled to disagree.

  • Woman is right. There is NO other way to eat corned beef! How could anyone put mayonaise on corned beef?!

  • I’d heard a rumor that this place closed recently. Someone please tell me this isn’t true.

    And I’m by no means questioning the story’s accuracy, but it’s very difficult to imagine that area as a predominantly Jewish neighborhood 30 years ago. Things change so fast in this city!

    • I don’t think the area was predominantly Jewish 30 years ago.
      When I first came to DC 34 years ago there was Jewish deli (grocery store actually) on Georgia Ave. near Walter Reade called Posin’s. It actually only closed within the last decade. At that time the clientele may have been predominantly Jewish but not the neighborhood any longer.
      The customers mostly came from nearby Montgomery County where they had moved. The same is probably true of Bladensburg area.

  • She wasn’t born with a yiddishe kop but it sounds like she acquired one.
    I never heard of Deli City but now can’t wait to go.
    It’s true that we (people in general, Jews) don’t eat that kind of food the way we used to. Delicious but not without its consequences.
    Looking forward to meeting Delores.

  • does anybody like K’s, or whatever it’s called, the former Krupin’s? I go there occasionally.

  • I loved reading this feature, Delores made me laugh! I’ll have to check this place out…

  • Deli City is a hidden gem. Sadly, I haven’t been in about a year. It’s time to make up for lost time.

  • This post made my day. Delores, expect a visit and a great tip…..

  • I am surprised by the assertion that there was ever a predominantly Jewish area along Bladensburg Rd. I’m a member of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which a few years ago published a magazine showing pictures of every synagogue that ever existed in Washington, D.C. since the first one was built in the 1870s. Besides the areas of NW that have synagogues today, there used to be buildings in modern day Penn Quarter/Chinatown, Crestwood, Brightwood, Southwest, Capitol Hill, and even far Southeast. There also used to be Jewish commercial strips along Georgia Ave., 14th St. above Columbia Heights, and (before WWI) along the former 4.5 St. SW. But nothing in that part of Northeast.

  • FYI, the “Baltimore Delicatessan” used to be located at 1101 Bladensburg Rd NE, in the building of present-day Sullivan’s Seafood and directly across from the present-day Capital City Diner.

    There are many, many neighborhood folks from all walks of life that still reminisce about Baltimore Deli’s sandwiches, especially their pastrami and reuban sandwiches. That’s one of the reasons we put a pastrami sandwich on Capital City Diner’s menu, made from freshly-sliced pastrami.

  • The S word is a derogatory slur.

  • Not at all an expert, but definitely all Jew. “Shvartze” is definitely derogatory. It’s the Yiddish N word. You’d rarely hear anyone under 80 say it. And if you did, you could correct them and it would (probably) stick.

  • OMG! It’s like my grandpa is back from the dead reading that article. Thanks for the memories, Delores.

  • Deli City has some ofthe best corned beef I’ve ever tasted. Worth a visit. The only bummer is that they’re not open weekends.

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