Making knishes at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Laura Silver.
Written by: Jennifer Smith
There are a couple different ways of assessing your knish literacy.
A “knish virgin” might only know the word in passing. Perhaps they’ve walked past a famous knishery while wandering the streets of New York City, a central hub of “knish culture,” according to one of its most enthusiastic historians, writer Laura Silver.
“It occurs to me that we should describe the knish,” says Silver for the knish virgins. “It’s a hunk of stuffed dough with a filling, and it can be baked or fried. It can have a host of sweet or savory fillings. It can come in shapes that are round or square. There’s even been knishes that are half-moon in shape.”
The “knish curious” might have seen them at their local deli and inquired as to what was inside the doughy dumpling, but “knish veterans” like Silver know that the knish contains more than mashed potatoes, ground meat or buckwheat groats, often referred to as kasha. For Silver at least, the knish contains a rich history, steeped in memory and strengthened by the community.
What started as a personal quest to learn the fate of a beloved knish recipe (that of Mrs. Stahl’s of Brighton Beach) became a full-fledged research project for Silver, who is currently penning a book on the knish.
We caught up with Laura Silver for a conversation about the knish in New York City and what community means to the city’s still-thriving “knish culture.”
BreakThru Radio: I was just curious about the knish because it’s not something I’d seen before I got to New York. I was wondering if it was a strictly “New York” food.
Laura Silver: New York is probably the epicenter of modern-day knish culture, but it’s certainly not the only place you can find a knish. According to my research, the knish came into being in Eastern Europe and probably before that in France, but it really rose to popularity on the sidewalks of New York and on the beachfront, on the boardwalk.
BTR: Did you grow up in New York?
LS: I did. I’m born in Queens to parents from the Bronx and Brooklyn. So it’s a mixed marriage.
BTR: Do you remember any childhood memories with the knish?
LS: Of course, well, that’s what all my research is basically predicated on. My family would go to this knish store religiously. It was called Mrs. Stahl’s, and it was located in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn about one long block from the ocean, and this was our pilgrimage site. This was the knish shop my dad went to as a kid, and his parents before him.
BTR: What happened to Mrs. Stahl’s?
LS: Mrs. Stahl’s shut its doors in 2005 after 70 years beneath the elevated train in Brighton Beach. It was a tough moment for me because I had taken it for granted.
I set out on a hunt to find out what happened to Mrs. Stahl’s knish, and after many calls, I found out that the recipe had been adopted by an Italian pasta maker in New Jersey, about two hours south of New York City. He made his kitchen kosher in accordance with Jewish dietary laws in order to produce knishes there. He produced the recipe alongside his tortellini and his gnocchi, and he would export the knishes back to New York City for sale.
BTR: You were mentioning “knish culture.” How would you describe knish culture?
LS: Knish culture can take a lot of forms. What I find so interesting about the knish is that it’s a Jewish food, definitely of Jewish origin, that I think rose to popularity in working class neighborhoods when people were in dire straits. Peddlers would sell knishes from pushcarts. Then, they got to be shops like Yonah Schimmel’s, [which] we still have on Houston Street.
So knish culture I would say is born of entrepreneurship, ingenuity, not having a ton of excess, really making do with what you have. I think that’s also morphed into New York City street culture. You definitely don’t have to be Jewish to know about knishes or to enjoy them. It’s about making do and also about being insider in a way—being an outsider yet being part of a group of outsiders.
BTR: A good way for outsiders to find each other… any other examples of the knish being used for community building?
LS: I think it’s an excellent vehicle for community building. When I was giving a presentation about my knish research in the Canadian Rockies at an art center called The Banff Centre for the Arts, I was called upon to produce knishes. Now, that’s not a place where you can get a lot of knishes, and the deli I was hoping to get them from in Calgary, Alberta had closed. So it turned out I had to make knishes, and I enlisted the help of the 50 people at this conference. They were from all over the world, and people spent most of the day on their computers … so not a ton of eye contact. When we made knishes starting at 9:30 at night, everyone put their devices aside, followed the instructions I had printed out, and started working together to make a food they never even heard of in most cases. It gave us a chance to interact without any technology—in a very human way.
I think baking is a great way to involve people of diverse backgrounds and get them to talk to each other. I found groups of bakers in Minnesota, in Atlanta—women who come together weekly to bake food that they share with their communities and use as fundraisers. That’s certainly not unique to any one heritage, religion or culture.
BTR: Right, everybody has to eat.
LS: No kidding. Actually, when I spent some time in Senegal, I was extremely blown away by these women who bake trays and trays of something called “a fatayer,” which is basically an Arabic word for the knish. Nothing made me feel more at home.
While Silver’s knish story starts in Brooklyn with that childhood pilgrimage to Mrs. Stahl’s, she has also traveled to Poland, Israel, and France while researching the knish.
Silver’s project is part of Giving By Design, which will be on exhibit at 92Y Tribeca in Soho through June 23.
For more of our interview with Laura Silver, check out today’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.