Each city has its own special blue plaque.
In Chicago, its deep fried pizza. In New Orleans, her gumbo. But New York is too big, too diverse for that.
It doesn’t have a signature dish. He has dozens of them and many come with a sour pickle on the side.
This is the conclusion of June Hersh’s Iconic Jewish Food of New York: A Story and Recipe Guide.
Others may rightfully claim a slice of pizza, folded, as the city’s emblematic meal. Any of the dishes the city has named after Manhattan Clam Chowder or New York steak would do the trick. But Hersh doesn’t have it.
Many of the foods associated with New York City find their lineage in Eastern Europe, and their voice is infused with a Yiddish accent, Hersh insists.
Their appeal is universal, he says, at least in these five boroughs.
Order a bagel with a cream cheese schmear from a bodega and no translation is needed, writes Hersh. New Yorkers have embraced Jewish food, and Jewish food has transformed New Yorkers.
His entertaining book is divided by food types: bagels get one chapter, lox another, and many more covering smoked fish, meats, knishes, and other goodies, not all of which are popular outside of the city.
But before setting the table, Hersh sets the scene.
His book begins in the late 19th century, as waves of Eastern European Jews began arriving in New York City, joining the smaller influx of German immigrants.
In 1880, there were an estimated 60,000 Jews in New York City, he notes. By 1914 it had risen to 1.5 million … These immigrants, unlike the German wave, arrived as whole families. They were characterized as more religious, impoverished and less educated. They were slower to assimilate and in large numbers maintained their adherence to dietary laws.
And so, they had to create their own space in the New World, one of Shabbat butchers, bakers, and winemakers, not to mention delicatessens, dairy restaurants, and mouthwatering shops.
The last one, Hersh explains, was a unique New York institution, and a bit of a magic trick that turned an adjective into a noun.
In this case, appetizing didn’t describe what the shops looked like, though many were downright tempting, but what they sold: a wide range of almost everything, so long as it was pareve, foods that were neither meat nor dairy and therefore kosher from serve with both.
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 typical one also sold smoked sturgeon, sable, salmon, whitefish, and penny candy, in case you had a cranky kid in tow. But there may also be pickles, sauerkraut and canned sardines. Nuts, dried fruits and dried mushrooms were stored in bins. Some even offered bread and biscuits, from shiny challah to sweet rugelach.
The queen of this realm, Hersh insists, remains Russ & Daughters, on E. Houston S. since 1920. Founded by Joel Russ, who started by selling herring from a pushcart, it was the first store in America to break away from the & Sons tradition and raise female heirs to equal partnership.
While Hersh isn’t afraid to call Russ & Daughters the greatest of all time, he acknowledges that uptown stores like Barney Greengrass, Murray’s Sturgeon and Zabars have generations of loyal customers. Readers are encouraged to dine in and decide for themselves.
The Dairy Restaurant is another NYC institution, perfect for diners who keep kosher and crave (but don’t want to) the occasional cheese blintz. These restaurants did not serve meat. One devotee was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who frequented the Triangle Dairy in the Bronx.
The avowed Marxist did not tip, as he felt it was an outrage to the waitstaff, Hersh notes. In turn, the waiters reacted with insults, accidental spills of hot soup, and insults.
Dairy restaurants outlived Trotsky, but not by much. Though some, like Ratners and Rapoports once thrived, both are now gone. One of the only survivors is the B&H in the East Village, which has been serving milk and sour cream since 1938.
A sign of the times is the current ownership, which includes a Polish Christian woman, a Muslim and a Mexican man, which sounds like the basis for a politically incorrect joke, writes Hersh. However, this team maintains the standards and menu that have made B&H a destination.
But as wonderful as the dairy restaurants, mouthwatering shops, pickle and knish shops are, there is really only one eternal star of the extraordinary show and that is New York food.
Well, hello, gastronomy!
Classic Jewish delicatessen waiters in gold jackets, tables full of kibitzers, mile-high sandwiches are a purely Jewish-American invention. People didn’t sit around in Minsk ordering a tongue sandwich and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Soda.
Once the 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 the sweatshops. They wanted to have a glass of tea, a snack.
The delicatessen filled their stomachs. And, for these new Americans, it filled other needs.
The deli has become more than a place to grab a bite or buy a pound of salami, writes Hersh. It became the therapists office, your news lifeline from home, a cultural haven for poets and writers, a debating club and social hall It became a place where they could gather and talk to each other in Yiddish without judgment or fear or be judged a stranger.
It truly was a home away from home.
What was the best? Hersh’s too smart to take sides there. You mention the great Stages, Carnegie, Bens, Lindys and Pastrami Queen, only a few of which are still around. The still thriving Katzs, where these days you can wait in line for an hour before entering this pastrami palace, gets a special mention. In addition, it offers trivia. Why does the sign say Katzs Thats All?
Decades ago, when owners hired a sign maker, he asked what he should say. The bosses allegedly said, Katzs. That’s all.
Like Katz’ sandwiches, this book is impressively stuffed. There’s a color photo insert of mouthwatering meals, great period photos, and ads like: Send Your Boyfriend a Sausage in the Army.
There are also authentic recipes. (No deconstructed knishes or jalapeno matzoh balls here, promises Hersh.) The instructions are straightforward but still hold a few surprises. Like the trick to making a really classic egg custard, and of course you need Fox U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, seltzer, and half-and-half or whole milk. You have to stir vigorously to get foam.
The book includes tips, such as when to stop by Acme Fish for wholesale pricing on their deluxe smoked salmon. He shares when to schedule a Brooklyn Seltzer Boys factory tour and where to find a Manhattan bookstore dedicated to the pickle tradition.
Just make sure you end your trip with a stop at Katzs, and a seat at the table is marked where they filmed When Harry Met Sally. And don’t be afraid to declare, I’ll have what she has.
Because whatever it is, you know it’s going to be okay.
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