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A Guide for the Perplexed Knish-o-phile

Thursday, January 22, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Laura Silver wrote about the knish as an instrument of social justice. She is the author of the book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food and has been blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Dumplings and samosas and empanadas may have become the prominent street foods of modern-day New York, but they have not completely eclipsed the pastry beloved by Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Baschevis Singer, Molly Picon and Joan Rivers.

Enough with the complaining. You can find a good knish, you just have to know where to look. Sure, the knish will never be exactly as it was in 1950, 1960 or even 1975. It’s rare — but not impossible — to find a person selling knishes on the Coney Island boardwalk or the sands of Brighton Beach. In the last few years I’ve received multiple (and unrelated) reports of a man who has revived the “Hot Knishes” cry of years past and a woman who sells homemade potato pies from a shopping cart on Sundays, overlooking the ocean, off Stillwell Avenue, a stone’s throw from Nathan’s.

If you’re not game for the chase, more than two dozen bricks and mortar establishments offer savory and sweet pies of Eastern European Jewish origin. Yonah Shimmel’s on Manhattan’s Houston Street and Knish Nosh on Queens Boulevard (with a satellite location on the tony shores of Central Park’s Conservatory Water) are the best known, but they are far from alone. Knish-positive kosher delis and specialty shops mark the five boroughs and beyond. Finding a good knish involves adopting a posture of humility, harnessing a sense of adventure and honing one’s knish-dar. Not all of the entries are obvious to the uninitiated. Judy’s Knishes, founded by Lower East Side native Judy Hiller-Schwartz, is headquartered in the Avenue A-based kitchen of its namesake, and expects to gain a foothold at Malt and Mold, the neighborhood’s high-end beer-and-cheese purveyor in the coming months. (Fellow knish entrepreneur Noah Wildman of KnisheryNYC sold his potato and kasha wares there to the delight of Florence Fabricant.)

If all else fails, there’s a map. The initial iteration of this first-ever knish lover’s guide details more than thirty hot spots, from Manhattan to the greater metropolitan area, and is growing daily in entries and geographic reach. But it’s just the beginning. This map works best when knish-o-philes and curmudgeons alike contribute insider tips.

Feast your eyes and don’t be shy. Our communal knish consciousness depends on you. All flavors welcomed; no opinion too heated.

Share your favorite local or international knish spot at www.knish.me/map.

Laura Silver is an award-winning journalist whose writing on food and culture has appeared in The New York Times and the Forward and on NPR. Laura has been a writer in residence at the Millay Colony, the Banff Centre, and the New York Public Library. She is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish.

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The Knish as an Instrument of Social Justice

Monday, January 19, 2015 | Permalink

Laura Silver is the author of the book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food and an award-winning journalist whose writing on food and culture has appeared in The New York Times and the Forward and on NPR. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Je suis Charlie.
Je suis juive.
And yes, je suis knish.

The world is still reeling from brutal attacks in Paris. The events of Ferguson and the Eric Garner trial resonate. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s time to consider the knish as an instrument of social justice.

1. Accessible Edible

The carbohydrate-rich knish stuffs the stomach and provides caloric intake for a low price point. The pillow of dough — round or square, sweet or savory — could feed an army, a small family or serve a single person for two meals. There’s a low barrier to entry for this simple food that is easy to produce in vegan and gluten-free varieties.

2. Instrument of Peace

Knish maker Gussie Schwebel offered to share “the humble knish” with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt – and asked if she could be of service to her adopted country “by way of introducing the knish, which is very wholesome and not costly to produce, into the diet of our armed forces.” And, years later proclaimed her potato pies as a catalyst for rapprochement on domestic and international fronts. She set out manufacture “Republican and Democratic knishes — the delicious dishes” and believed that knishes, when served with vodka, could help bring an end to the Cold War and usher in an era of world peace.

3. Catalyst for Caring

The 1970 novel Teitelbaum’s Window by Wallace Markfield introduces the Knishe Queen, who reigns over the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, with tenacity and a taste for the political, as evidenced by her letter to Mahatma Gandhi:

We want to once again wish you good luck in your freeing of India.
Our biggest hope of the Brighton Beach Jewish community is that
you don’t overdo it with your fasting because your country is not
going to appreciate if you come out of prison a nervous wreck.
May we therefore suggest that you think of yourself and do what
is good for you by breaking your fast on one of our blackberry or
gooseberry currant knishes which are so lightly fried in the finest
quality peanut oil that the word fried doesn’t even apply. As made
in our modern kitchens, these knishes are strictly parveh, meat
doesn’t go anywhere near them.

4. Capsule of Culture

The knish has been immortalized by Issac Baschevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and Barbra Streisand, who, in her welcome back to Brooklyn concert in 2012, adapted the lyrics of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the musical Sunset Boulevard to pay homage to the street food of her youth.

Yes, a world with hot knishes
Is incredibly delicious

Hip hop artist SD3 (an abbreviation of Sammy Davis III) has used the knish to bridge cultural and culinary divides – and to spur conversations, using — nu? — the knish. Case in point, the lyrics of ditty he belts out in a music video set at – where else? – a bar mitzvah.

One Potato, Two Potato, Three Knish
A table full of Bubbe’s goodies is what I wish.

The potato pie also works as an ambassador. Wrapped pastries like Jamaican patties, aloo pies, samosas and empanadas that occur in culinary traditions of all ethnicities and flavors count as knishing cousins.

5. Champion of Underdogs and Unmentionables

The knish doesn’t shy away from tender topics. Nightclub crooner Pearl Williams harnessed its Yiddish slang meaning to project female power. Her 1961 record album (yes, vinyl), A Trip around the World Is Not a Cruise, oozed innuendos, loud, proud and unapologetic.

I found a new way to do it. For money.
Don’t laugh. For years . . . I was doing it for love. Then one day I
took a ride through the Holland Tunnel and I saw a big sign: “Pay as
you enter.” What an idea hit my brain. Now I have a tattoo above the
knish: “Pay as you enter.” Underneath, I have a tattoo: “Thank you,
call again. Member of the Diners Club.”

So, if you’re feeling distraught about the state of the world, or need to summon strength for a Day of Service, reach for a knish. It contains multitudes and will help you steel yourself for the challenges to come. Remember, it’s not our job to finish it, but we must begin.

Laura Silver has been a writer in residence at the Millay Colony, the Banff Centre, and the New York Public Library. She is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish.

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