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Book: How Jewish food became NYC’s signature dish

Every city has its blue plate special.

In Chicago, it’s deep-dish pizza. In New Orleans, it’s gumbo. But New York is too big, too diverse for that.

It doesn’t have one signature dish. It has dozens, and many come with a sour pickle on the side.

That’s the conclusion of June Hersh’s “Iconic New York Jewish Food: A History and Guide with Recipes.”

Others could make a legit claim for a slice of pizza, folded, as the city’s emblematic meal. One of the dishes the city gave its name to — Manhattan Clam Chowder or New York strip steak would work. But Hersh isn’t having it.

“Many of the foods associated with New York City find their lineage in Eastern Europe and their voice imbued with a Yiddish accent,” Hersh insists.

Their appeal is universal, she says, at least throughout these five boroughs.

“Order a bagel with a schmear of cream cheese from a bodega and no translation is needed,” Hersh writes. “New Yorkers have embraced Jewish food, and Jewish food has transformed New Yorkers.”

Look for full bins of imperfect bagels; like snowflakes, no two should be alike. (Courtesy of the Author)

Her entertaining book is divided by food types — bagels get one chapter, lox another, and several more cover smoked fish, meats, knishes, and other treats, not all of which are popular outside of the city.

But before she sets the table, Hersh sets the scene.

Her book begins in the late 19th century when waves of Eastern European Jews began arriving in New York, joining the smaller influx of German immigrants.

“In 1880, there were about 60,000 Jews in New York City,” she notes. “By 1914, it had swelled to 1.5 million … These immigrants, unlike the German wave, came as whole families. They were characterized as more religious, impoverished and less educated. They were slower to assimilate and in great numbers retained their adherence to dietary laws.”

The bustling streets of the Lower East Side, circa 1900s. (Library of Congress)

And so, they had to create their own space in the New World — one of butchers and bakers and Shabbat winemakers, not to mention delicatessens, dairy restaurants, and appetizing stores.

The last, Hersh explains, was a singular New York institution, and a bit of a magic trick that turned an adjective into a noun.

In this case, appetizing didn’t describe the store’s look — although many were definitely appealing — but what it sold: A wide array of almost anything, provided it was pareve, foods that were neither meat nor dairy and therefore kosher to serve with either.

“At its peak in the 1930s,” Hersh writes, “there were 500 such stores.”

So, what could you get there? What are you looking for?

A Lower East Side icon for more than 100 years and counting. (Courtesy Russ & Daughters)

A typical one sold smoked fish — sturgeon, sable, salmon, whitefish — and penny candy, too, just in case you had a cranky child in tow. But there also might be pickles, sauerkraut, and canned sardines. Nuts, dried fruit, and dried mushrooms were stored in bins. Some offered breads and cookies, too, from shiny challahs to sweet rugelach.

The queen of this realm, Hersh insists, remains Russ & Daughters, on E. Houston S. since 1920. Founded by Joel Russ, who began by hawking herring from a pushcart, it was the first store in America to break from the “& Sons” tradition and elevate female heirs to equal partnership.

Although Hersh isn’t afraid to dub Russ & Daughters the “greatest of all time,” she acknowledges uptown stores like Barney Greengrass, Murray’s Sturgeon, and Zabar’s have generations of loyal customers. Readers are encouraged to dine and decide, for themselves.

A vintage shot of the appetizing counter and stacks of canned goods at Russ & Daughters. (Courtesy Russ & Daughters)

The dairy restaurant is another New York institution, perfect for diners who keep kosher and crave (but don’t want to make) the occasional cheese blintz. These restaurants served no meat. A devotee was revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who frequented the Triangle Dairy in the Bronx.

“The avowed Marxist did not tip, as he felt it was an indignity to the waiters,” Hersh notes. “In turn, the waiters retaliated with insults, accidental spillings of hot soup, and insults.”

The dairy restaurants outlasted Trotsky, but not by much. Although some, like Ratner’s and Rapoport’s once thrived, both are gone now. One of the sole survivors is the B&H in the East Village, serving latkes and sour cream since 1938.

“A sign of the times is the current ownership, which comprises a Polish Christian woman, a Muslim and a Mexican man, which sounds like the basis for a politically incorrect joke,” Hersh writes. “However, this team maintains the standards and menu that made B&H a destination.”

But as marvelous as dairy restaurants, appetizing shops, pickle, and knish shops are, there’s truly only one eternal star of the amazing show that is New York food.

Well, hello, deli!

The classic Jewish delicatessen — waiters in gold jackets, tables full of kibitzers, mile-high sandwiches — is a purely Jewish-American invention. People didn’t sit around in Minsk ordering a tongue sandwich and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda.

Once immigrants found a foothold in the new country, they and, especially their children — looked for a place to take a break after long days in sweatshops. They wanted to have a glass of tea, a nosh.

The iconic Katz's deli on E. Houston St.

The delicatessen filled their stomachs. And, for these new Americans, it filled other needs.

“The deli became more than a place to grab a bite or buy half a pound of salami,” Hersh writes. “It became the therapist’s office, your lifeline to news from back home, a cultural haven for poets and writers, a debate club and a social hall… It became a place where they could gather and speak to one another in Yiddish without judgment or fear or being judged as outsiders.”

It was, truly, a home away from home.

What was the best? Hersh is too smart to take sides there. She mentions the great ones — the Stage, the Carnegie, Ben’s, Lindy’s, and Pastrami Queen — only a few of which are still around. The still-thriving Katz’s, where these days you can wait on line for an hour before making your way into this palace of pastrami, receives special mention. Plus, she offers trivia. Why does the sign read “Katz’s — That’s All”?

Decades ago, when the owners hired a sign maker, he asked what it should say. The bosses supposedly said, “Katz’s. That’s all.”

When you can’t decide between corned beef or pastrami at Katz’s, order both—just be sure that yellow chit stays with you at all times. (Courtesy of the Author)

Like Katz’s sandwiches, this book is impressively overstuffed. There’s a color-photo insert of mouth-watering meals, terrific period photos, and advertisements such as: “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.”

There are authentic recipes, too. (“No deconstructed knishes or jalapeno matzoh balls here,” Hersh promises.) Instructions are simple but still hold some surprises. Like the trick to making a truly classic egg cream, and of course, you need Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, seltzer, and half-and-half or whole milk. You must stir vigorously to achieve the foam.

The book includes tips, such as when to drop by Acme Fish for wholesale prices on their deluxe lox. It shares when to schedule a tour at the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys factory, and where to find a Manhattan bookstore devoted to the lore of pickles.

Did the movie When Harry Met Sally make Katz’s famous, or did Katz’s immortalize the movie? You can sit where it all took place. (Erik39/Wikimedia Commons)

Just be sure you end your trip with a stop at Katz’s, and a seat at the table — it’s marked — where they filmed “When Harry Met Sally.” And don’t be afraid to declare, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Because whatever it is, you know it’s going to be good.

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