The Dairy Restaurant

March 16, 2013

For The Dairy Restau­rant, Ben Katchor retells the his­to­ry of where we choose to eat — a his­to­ry that starts with the first man allowed to enter a walled gar­den and encour­aged by the garden’s own­er to enjoy its fruits. In this bril­liant, sui gener­is book, Ben Katchor illu­mi­nates the unique his­tor­i­cal con­flu­ence of events and ideas that led to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the dairy restau­rant in New York City. In words and his inim­itable draw­ings, he begins with Adam, enter­ing Eden and eat­ing the fruits there­in. He exam­ines ancient pro­to­cols for offer­ings to the gods and the kosher milk-meat taboo. He describes the first veg­e­tar­i­an prac­tice, the devel­op­ment of inns offer­ing food to trav­el­ers, the inven­tion of the restau­rant, the rise of var­i­ous food fads, and the inter­sec­tion between culi­nary prac­tice and rad­i­cal pol­i­tics. Here, too, is an ency­clo­pe­dic direc­to­ry of dairy restau­rants that once thrived in New York City and its envi­rons, evoked by Katchor’s illus­tra­tions of clas­si­fied adver­tise­ments, match­books, menus, and phone direc­to­ry list­ings. And he ends on an ele­giac note as he rec­ol­lects his own expe­ri­ences in many of these unique restau­rants just before they dis­ap­peared — as have almost all the dairy restau­rants in the New York met­ro­pol­i­tan area.

Discussion Questions

In The Dairy Restau­rant, car­toon­ist and illus­tra­tor Ben Katchor cap­tures the van­ished spir­it of the Jew­ish dairy restau­rants that once dot­ted cities across North Amer­i­ca. Part his­to­ry, part mem­oir, part yel­low pages, part fan­tas­ti­cal myth­i­cal ori­gin sto­ry, this book pro­vides, in graph­ic-nov­el for­mat, col­or­ful con­text for under­stand­ing food taboos, the moral­i­ty of eat­ing, the roots of restau­rant hos­pi­tal­i­ty, and how these forces came togeth­er to explain the devel­op­ment of Jew­ish culi­nary insti­tu­tions known for blintzes, noo­dle kugel, and baked her­ring. You’ll find back­ground sto­ries on such icon­ic restau­rants as Ratner’s, B&H Dairy, and more, as well as menus, anec­dotes from din­ers, and news­pa­per accounts of the dish­es, wait­staff, ambi­ence, and restau­rant equip­ment that made each restau­rant so spe­cial. Katchor traces the ori­gins of the dairy restau­rants to Euro­pean milk bars, mov­ing beyond the con­ven­tion­al analy­sis of the dairy restau­rant as an ant-deli” and root­ing them in veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and Euro­pean agri­cul­ture. Both text and black-and-white illus­tra­tions brim with nos­tal­gia for the tex­tures of the past. Katchor’s exhaus­tive­ly researched, wild­ly play­ful work­will serve as an invalu­able resource to bet­ter under­stand the his­to­ry of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish immi­grant dai­ly life in the New World and Jew­ish restau­rants in the Unit­ed States.