Not everyone knows that the word delicatessen has a fairly different meaning in Europe and the United States.
In the US, a delicatessen store, also known as simply a deli, is a synthesis of a grocery store and a fast-food restaurant which offers fresh food. At a deli one can find a variety of salads, spreads and pre-cooked meals to buy by weight or on a sandwich and to get as a take-out or sit-in.
In Europe, delicatessen stores are, as a rule, designed to sell special food of top quality and are often found at luxury department stores (yes, like Harrods).
Those familiar with the German language, would decide that the term delicatessen is a direct loan word from German, as it makes sense to consider that it is a combination of “delikat” and “essen” (the German verb with a meaning to eat) but that is only part of the story.
Yes, indeed the word jumped into the English language through the German, but it has a longer story than that. The term originates from the Latin adjective delicatus with the meaning of “delightful, luxurious, giving pleasure”, to jump into the 16th century French language with the same meaning and the spelling of délicatesse and only from there to go to the Germans who by adding an -n (a standard ending for plural forms of nouns) turned the word to sound as if it was German-coined.
Delicatessen – origin
Regardless of the origin of the term, and whether it comes from a deli or a luxurious gourmet store, it is clear that we are talking about delightful food. The colloquial meaning of the term often refers to places which offer packed and fresh food from another country that is other ways rare to find and hence, an exotic celebration for our palate.
And exactly with that meaning, the word made its first appearance into the written English language when in 1877, the Scottish journalist and London critic Enaeas Sweetland Dallas wrote Kettner’s Book Of The Table. Auguste Kettner was a former chef of Napoleon III and run the most fashionable Victorian restaurant in Soho, London – known for its extravagance, champagne, and gastronomic delicacies. It is believed that Dallas wrote the cook book in exchange of free meals, he knew what was talking about, as got a chance to taste the recipes which was describing.
Ironically, the first time the word delicatessen appeared in the US media, was 7 years later, when The New York Times reported on a fire breaking out in a delicatessen store located on Tenth Avenue and which owner was also named Auguste.
Among from describing the place where delicate food is offered, the term delicatessen can also stand as a noun to describe the food itself or as an adjective to describe the top quality and taste of meals. 1904, Alan Dale in Wanted: a cook: domestic dialogues describes how the host “Anna has provided us what she calls a delicatessen dinner.”