Jacqui Gal

Adventures of a Vegemite Knish Princess

NY noshing

18 December 2007

Earlier this year, editor (at that time) Dan Goldberg really chewed me out for my lack of blog reporting on the Jewish food landscape in New York.

“I mean you wrote about 600 words on culinary fantasies — a gift for a Jewish topic if ever there was one — and the sum total of Jewish content was, if I’m not mistaken, one word: ‘Bagel’.”

Of course, he was right.

But when it comes to the bountiful food landscape of New York City, even after living here for three years, exploring Jewish food has been more of a novelty than a serious endeavour.

It’s something that I would do for kicks, to entertain visitors. Take them to the Carnegie Deli and show them a ridiculous pastrami sandwich (two dried out pieces of flimsy rye bread, topped with an outrageous mountain of sliced meat and not much else).

In my own time, I do what any other New York foodie does: read voraciously on the weekly openings, closings and chef-hopping that goes on, follow (with addiction) the respected food blogs and columns, while living for Wednesday’s New York Times Dining In/Dining Out section. And that’s just while I’m supposed to be working.

On nights and weekends, you gotta eat. Of course, there’s the push and pull between a tendency to stick with old favourites and the desire to test out new ground. Otherwise, why was I clipping all those restaurant reviews and making mental lists of the top places to visit next?

Besides, as a freelance writer, potentially carving out a niche in food-writing, I had to keep up with food trends. So where does Jewish food play into all of this?

If we’re talking about kosher food, then New York is certainly a haven, but its specialty is more precisely the kosher version of other things -– kosher Chinese, kosher pizza or kosher Indian food. What about the old Jewish favourites?

Maybe I wouldn’t have ever found out, if it wasn’t for a fortuitous Hannukah assignment. A local editor dispatched me to find eight Jewish-food destinations, one for each night of the holiday. I convinced him that the qualifying foods ought not to be necessarily kosher, since some of the relevant NY institutions are open on Shabbat.

Boy was I surprised.

Naturally, I had to include the obvious categories, like bagels and lox or matzo ball soup. After researching the top-rated suppliers and tasting their wares, I realized that some of these Jewish staples could be truly sublime, even if they weren’t made in a Yiddisher mama’s kitchen.

And then there was the knish. This was my favourite discovery. Correct me if I am wrong, but knishes are not typical of Australian Jewish cooking. I had never even heard of one before my first visit to New York. I experimented by tasting one at a bagel place, soon after arriving here, but that lumpy bit of potato, broccoli and dough did the humble knish no favours. Were it not for this assignment, I would probably never have eaten another.

I probably sought out Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery for the novelty of its name alone — it would look great in my story (“Such a name!”) Sure I had been past it before, but the faded dusty exterior never tempted me inside. What a mistake.

Even the quickest listing search on the internet proved that this knishery had loyal customers. People posted reviews, saying they loved to stop in before heading to the movie theatre next door, to grab a knish or two instead of over-priced popcorn.

One bite and I could see why. The lump of spiced and mashed potato was fluffy and warm and encased in a light pastry. Served with coleslaw and pickles (for an extra dollar) it was a satisfying meal, for the grand total of $3.75 (plus tax).

The atmosphere, however, came free.

As one website notes:

Yonah Schimmel began by selling his products … on the beach. Schimmel’s territory was Coney Island. But Schimmel also sold his wife’s homemade products from a pushcart on the Lower East Side before opening the store on Houston Street in 1910.

The feeling of history together with the so-Jewish staff that works and chats while you eat, provides the perfect backdrop. It’s the New York of Crossing Delancy or a medley of Woody Allen films. You don’t find it very much these days. Although, there’s reason to believe in an imminent resurgence.

This week the famous 2nd Avenue Deli, that abruptly closed last year, reopened (on Third Avenue!), and the local media went bananas for the story. According to one report New York was home to about 3,000 kosher delis, during its peak of popularity in the 1930’s. Now there are barely a dozen.

One diner, who turned up for the opening on Monday lamented that this style of food could disappear in a city like New York, where “everything changes and nothing is sacred”.

I agree that this food, which carries so much nostalgia with it, should be respected and preserved. But not at the expense of quality. It has to stay prominent in this highly competitive food landscape because it’s good, not just because it’s the stuff of memories.

(Oh, and make sure you read the and check out the photo gallery too!)

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