25 NOVEMBER, 2014
By: Maria Popova
A warm celebration of knishes, kasha, lox, and the people and places of which collective memory is woven.
If it is true that we are what we eat and that telling stories is what makes us human, then at the intersection of these two adages lies an immutable truth about the stories we tell about the food we eat. That is why the greatest books of all time are full of memorable meals, why we find food so sensual, and why the best cookbooks tell the stories of their time and place.
That’s what food photographer Aaron Rezny and magazine creative director Jordan Schaps explore in Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food (public library | IndieBound) — a delectable compendium of recipes, mouth-watering photographs, profiles of legendary establishments, jokes, and food-related sentimental stories by some of New York’s most interesting Jews about the beloved foods their immigrant ancestors transplanted from Europe to the Lower East Side in the early 20th century: knishes, kasha, dill pickles, bagels, lox, pastrami, whitefish, egg creams, and more.
The project, which features contributions by luminaries like violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman, graphic designer Milton Glaser, artist Debbie Millman, and music legend Lou Reed, does for edible memories what Emily Spivack’s wonderful Worn Stories did for wearable ones.
Lower East Side pretzel vendor in the early 20th century
Joan Rivers writes in the introduction:
My mother was a very chic woman, very well read, a great hostess, and a horrible cook. She literally couldn’t cook anything beyond just a few dishes. And we weren’t kosher but she always went to kosher butchers. She thought the meat was better quality—not that it mattered since she didn’t know what to do with it in the first place. You know how they butcher kosher meat, right? The cows aren’t slaughtered. They’re nagged to death.
There’s an old joke: What does a Jewish woman make for dinner? Reservations. That was my mother. She did cook a few things: kasha varnishkes, eggele (or eyerlekh, which is Yiddish for “little eggs.” These are creamy, flavorful unhatched chicken eggs, either cooked inside a chicken or in a soup), and gribenes, which I just loved until I was about 13 and realized how fattening they are. And we always had challah.
So how did I develop my love for good Jewish food when it wasn’t on our table daily? I’ll tell you. My father was a doctor with a huge ethnic practice in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Obviously, most patients paid him but some could not afford to, and so they’d bring food in exchange for medical services. We got soups, blintzes… you name it. Stuffed derma was a big one for fixing a burst appendix. Oh my God, the food… it was just terrific and this is how I grew up — eating such food cooked with love and delivered by infirm and dying patients.
Joan Rivers, age 5
In a sentiment rendered inevitably poignant by Rivers’s recent death, she adds:
If I had to choose, my last meal would be a good piece of gefilte fish with some fantastic freshly grated horseradish on it.
In his 1968 homage to the true potato knish in general and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes Bakery at 137 E. Houston Street in particular, legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and one wise soul, writes:
Although the knish has played an active role in many New York political campaigns, some readers may still never have seen or eaten one.
The authentic hand-made knish made at Yonah Schimmel’s is an irregularly shaped, fat, bun-like amalgam of mashed potatoes, flour, and onions, all encased in a thin, crisp, brown pastry skin, and as a food contains great stomach-filling properties. As is the custom with simple dishes, the knish is at its best when fresh, hot and made of ingredients of good quality. The mass-produced commercial knish most often encountered in New York delicatessens lacks these essentials. It can be recognized immediately by a thick, embossed surfaced of an unnaturally yellow hue. Another clue of its identification is its hard-edged rectangular shape. Because the commercial knish is often kept on a hot grill for days at a time, the potato filling tends to go sour. The real tragedy of this abuse is that many people brought up on this inferior product have never known a real knish. Yonah Schimmel’s is perhaps the last bastion of the genuine item.
Milton Glaser as a child
The humble bakery, Glaser notes, is the stuff of legend — a waiter who worked there for forty-five years recalls the fateful day when Eleanor Roosevelt walked in and bought a bag of knishes for her presidential husband.
In an touching essay titled “Grandma Lillian’s Cookies,” artist, author, and interviewer extraordinaire Debbie Millman explores how we imbue food with the comfort and love we long for:
I didn’t see my dad for a long time after he and my mother divorced. One day she told me he wasn’t coming home, and I saw him only one time again in the next five years. I remember seeing his car down the street where we lived when he was visiting the woman he left my mother for. But he didn’t visit us. I must have missed him, but I don’t remember thinking about it much. My father stopped paying his alimony and child support so my mother had to take him to family court to get him to pay. My mother took my little brother and me to court with her, and I got all dressed up because I wanted to look nice when he saw me. I wore an orange and pink dress with puffy sleeves and white rubber boots and I remember feeling both excited and nervous about facing him. We waited and waited but he never showed up and we went home without ever seeing him. Then my mother met a new man, and shortly thereafter they got married.
Everybody loathed my stepfather except my mother. Her mom and dad — my grandparents — disliked him so much they moved to North Miami to be as far away from him as possible. This devastated me, as my grandmother was my favorite person in the world. Grandma Lillian was a feisty little lady with coiffed silver hair and shimmery pink fingernails. She made mouth-watering meals whenever I came to visit her Brooklyn apartment on McDonald Avenue: melt-in-your-mouth pot roast with fluffy kasha varnishkes, crunchy potato pancakes, and the softest, sweetest cheesy blintzes with cold sour cream. Every meal ended with my grandmother’s famous butter cookies. Shaped like daisies with a single, perfect chocolate chip in the center and baked to a golden perfection, my grandma’s cookies were the very definition of happiness to my 10-year-old self.
All that ended when my stepfather moved in. He was short and thick and had the stubbiest fingers I’d ever seen. He was curt and violent and I was terrified of him. My brother braved it in our home until he was 13. When he couldn’t take it anymore, he called my father and he came and took him away. I didn’t see much of my brother for the next ten years. Neither did my grandmother.
Every couple of months Grandma mailed me a care package filled with cookies. I was gleeful when it arrived — I could always recognize her loopy script and the 50 two-cent stamps haphazardly stuck on the box. I’d take my time opening my precious package, and I would ration the cookies so they’d last as long as possible. I’d imagine her with me as I slowly ate them, fantasizing what it would be like to hear her laugh or feel her hand. I missed her.
Years later, after Grandma Lillian died, my mother, my brother, and I met at her funeral. I hadn’t seen my brother in a long time and we were both cautious and glum. We tentatively talked about our memories, and I waxed sentimental about our grandmother’s cookies. Suddenly he perked up. “Hey!” he said. “Grandma sent me a box of cookies when I was at school. But as I opened them up, I realized that mice had eaten through the box. I had to throw the whole thing away. What a waste.”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at him and tried to find the years between us. I wasn’t sure if they were there.
Debbie Millman, age 10, with her Grandma Lillian
The great violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman recounts moving from Israel to attend Julliard in New York and rediscovering a childhood favorite in Manhattan:
In Israel, my family didn’t go out to eat. For dessert, my mother used to bake a two-layer cake with yellow cake, chocolate butter cream filling, and chocolate butter cream frosting on top — it was delicious.
My mother’s cake was probably the reason why I wandered into Cake Masters on the Upper West Side. Cake Masters made cakes for Liberace, President Kennedy, and Elizabeth Taylor and was known by its slogan, “where baking is an art.”
Cake Masters made the best seven-layer cake that I ever had. It tasted just like my mother’s! Their seven-layer cake was layers upon layers of yellow cake and butter cream frosting. Each layer had a nice soft texture and wonderful taste. I still remember how they used to sell it by the slice with each slice separated by wax paper. Cake Masters was close to my parents’ home so I would stop by again and again and again.
Nestled between the profiles of legendary establishments and stories of family memories are also a number of recipes that reveal the secrets behind beloved treats:
KATZ’S DELI EGG CREAM
by Jake Dell, owner
Alright, so the perfect Katz’s egg cream is really simple. The oldest recipe in the book for egg creams is a little Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup—although if you’re kinda a chocolate wuss you can use a little vanilla syrup instead, but let’s be honest, chocolate egg creams are infinitely better in my humble opinion — fill that up about an inch or so. Put an equal amount of milk in there. Top it off with a little bit of seltzer and as you’re pouring the seltzer you stir vigorously and that’ll get you the nice head on top. Voila! You have the perfect egg cream.
Eating Delancey is a treat in its totality. Complement it with Liberace’s little-known cookbook, the Modern Art Cookbook, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, some real recipes from Roald Dahl’s children’s books, Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction, and Andy Warhol’s forgotten illustrated recipes.
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