We spoke with Detroit’s first historian, Jamon Jordan about the historical context of what makes the sandwich that is rooted in Jewish and Irish history so popular in a city that is more than 80% Black.
“Because African Americans in Detroit, since the 1840s, lived in neighborhoods where Jewish Americans were either living or had just moved out of,” Jordan said. He noted particularly Black Bottom & Paradise Valley, especially in and around Hastings Street. As well as the North End and Old Westside & 12th, Dexter Linwood area.
Even as Black Detroiters began to move to the Western suburbs of Southfield and Oak Park—those neighborhoods were either actively or previously populated by Jewish communities.
“African Americans in Detroit lived in close proximity to Jewish people more than any other group, except Mexican Americans and other LatinX groups in Southwest Detroit,” Jordan said. “Jewish delis and restaurants were among the major establishments in these neighborhoods, placing African Americans in contact with Jewish dishes. Corned Beef being the top of the menu in most of these places.”
Some of the most historic deli’s were Schweizer’s in/near Black Bottom, the Koppin Theater in Black Bottom, and the Dairy Restaurant and Lunchroom in Paradise Valley. These establishments closed far before the 20th century.
Jordan notes that corned beef may even have ties to Detroit’s underworld. Members of the infamous Purple Gang were even involved in a shooting in the 1930s outside of a delicatessen.
Esquire Deli and Dexter-Davison Market in the 12th-Dexter Linwood neighborhood were some of the more popular establishments which were open from the 1970s until 2016.
Al’s Famous Deli was two that remained under new names. Lou Loewy’s “We know Al’s Famous as Bread Basket on Greenfield and Lincoln,” Jordan says. “ And, Lou Loewy’s is now Lou’s Deli.”
Also, another thing that makes corned beef so popular and tasty is the huge servings that it comes in from our many purveyors of the salty sandwich.
At Bread Basket Deli—one of the most popular in the metro area, a “regular” comes with 10 ounces of meat. The deli even offers a whopping one-pounder which has 16 ounces of meat on one sandwich.
From its historic roots, corned beef remains popular in and around Detroit. One of the newest purveyors is Mr. Corned Beef who slings huge sandwiches primarily on onion rolls in more than a half-dozen metro area locations.
In 2013, Winkler told the Detroit Free Press that he sells between 20,000 and 25,000 pounds of corned beef in his 12 stores EVERY WEEK. He sources his meat from Sy Ginsberg corned beef which is locally based. His most popular sandwich is the Reuben which is topped with Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and German sauerkraut…talk about international.
Vietnamese native Kim White shared that her mother was one of the creators of the wildly popular corned beef eggroll popularized by Asian Corn Beef.
“My mom came here in 1974 and her first job was in a corned beef deli," White told Metro Times. "With her Oriental knowledge and the deli experience, she came up with the idea to use the Chinese egg roll wrappers with the corned beef."
Whether on an onion roll or in an egg roll, corned beef sandwiches remain a Detroit favorite. While a coney dog might be what we are known for outside of the city, the natives know…a hot, delicious corned beef sandwich is the real taste of home.