Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, by Laura Silver, Brandeis University Press
Heralded by hip-hop artists and fictionalized in the U.S. sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, Jewish soul food the knish (pronounced k-nish) has been the decade-long obsession of author Laura Silver, who has raised this pastry into an object of art. A popular Eastern European snack food, this doughy paragon of delight is filled with mashed potato and sometimes with ground meat, sauerkraut or cheese before being baked or fried.
Silver’s historical and cultural exploration of the knish starts in 2005, after the closing of Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, an iconic 80-year old landmark in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach district. Laura Silver paints a loving and intimate portrait of her favourite knish shop, tantalizingly describing the aroma and taste of warm knishes fresh out of the oven. She recounts the history of Mrs. Stahl, her family and her knishes.
But then, her love of this particular delicacy takes her to other knish bakeries in New York, Paris, Israel, Minnesota, and Poland. Along her journey, Silver takes the reader on a mouth-watering exploration of the history and cultural relativity of the knish. She then delves into her own family roots through the prism of the knish, intertwining the two stories.
Surprisingly, there have been many cultural references to the knish. It has been mentioned in musicals, television programs, puppet shows and even rap music. The author has done detailed research to find and recreate these knish portrayals. During the 1970s, the knish was a focal point in Welcome Back Kotter: Mr. Kotter admits to having a potato knish addiction in his youth after being offered a free daily knish on Coney Island. In The Golden Girls, a tray of knishes is delivered to the funeral of Sophia Petrillo’s best friend. This leads to a close friendship and clears up a misunderstanding between Sophia and her ex-husband.
Hip-hop artist Mr. Doom rhymed “knishes” with “bitches” in the song “Rapp Snitch Knishes.” SD3, another hip-hop musician, made a music video in which he crashes a bar mitzvah party rapping about a knish and a wish.
As part of a New York arts festival, author Laura Silver participated in Knish Alley Revival, a celebration of Yiddish life and the many Yiddish theatres that thrived on Second Avenue during the early 1900s. Not surprisingly, she was dressed as – you guessed it – a knish.
Designed as a coffee table book, Knish:In Search of the Jewish Soul Food includes many photographs. Well researched and finely detailed, it demonstrates a deep understanding of the knish while bringing up many fine points. For example: Should a knish be eaten with mustard? What is a Charlie Knish? (Answer: a tuna casserole in a knish.) What are the Ten Knish Commandments? Which knish shop was a favourite of Leon Trotsky?
Along the knish journeys: a knish speed-eating contest, knish-making at the Banff Springs arts festival, a Minnesota state fair with a Delicious Knishes Booth, an Italian-owned pasta making company in New Jersey producing knishes as a sideline, and a knish baking adventure with Mrs. Stahl’s granddaughters. We meet elderly folks playing chess at a park in Tel Aviv while talking about their fond memories of the knish. As they are not easily available in Israel or France, we meet a chemical engineer turned restaurant owner who sold banana and vanilla honey knishes.
This book is fun, entertaining and chock-full of information about history, identity, Jewish culinary culture and Yiddish influences in America. With its appeal to the taste buds, this book will most certainly send you off to buy a dozen knishes.
Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food launches at Drawn and Quarterly (211 Bernard W.) on July 4th at 7pm. Visit the book’s website at knish.me.
Leslie Lutsky is host of Jewish Digest on Radio-Centreville and organizes walking tours of Jewish Montreal. He has a voracious appetite for knishes.
Photo by Eric Hunt, Wikimedia Commons