The Humble Knish

Ask somebody to name a classic New York City foodstuff and they’ll say pizza, probably, or maybe a bagel with lox or a Nathan’s hot dog smothered with kraut and mustard.

But whither the knish? Not only is it New York-born—at least in its known form—but with the exception of a few farflung “Jewish delis” out there in the American hinterlands, the carbo-carrying collation is seldom seen outside the five boroughs, unlike those other now-ubiquitous and largely all-American foods. There’s a reason, after all, that the knish—pronounce the “k” and the “n,” thank you—was one of the few foods allowed into the concession canon at Yankee Stadium: Where else could you attend the ultimate American sporting event and nosh a knish at the same time?

It’s probably just that most tourists—most New Yorkers, even—don’t know the pleasures of a true knish. And by true I mean not the square, soggy, fried, gluey potato hand pie you still find stuck sadly to the side at most Famous Ray’s, but the round, open-faced, somewhat strudel-y incarnation. These beauties are nearly as tall as they are wide: A tubby little stack of onion-flecked potatoes (the most common filling) wrapped tightly in a crispy-thin pastry blanket, a small circle of potatoes peeking out at the top like a baby in a Japanese manga cartoon, but signaling Eastern European ancestry.
Arthur Schwartz, whose 2008 book Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking (Ten Speed Press) includes an intro to knish studies, says that though many Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian and Austrian pastry-wrapped dumplings resembled the knish (a name he traces to Italian gnocchi, Austrian knoedel and Yiddish knaidlach, dumplings all), it’s really American born. Immigrants from those countries scarfed their sundry savory snacks here in New York City around the turn of the last century.

But the grueling all-work, no-play day-to-day of the Lower East Side that Americanized its eaters also led to the transformation of the knish from the home-cooked kind to something that could be made en masse, sold and eaten on the go; it was soon offered from scores of pushcarts in the neighborhood. Potato was popular back then, too, but those thin knish crusts also enrobed old-fashioned Eastern European fillings of liver, onions and potatoes; sweet cheese; or the nutty, funky earthy grain called kasha that many old-timers cite as their favorite.

Knishes were so popular, in fact, that in 1910 Yonah Schimmel, a Romanian immigrant, eventually opened the city’s first “knishery,” on Houston Street. Yonah’s remains much the same today—as food writer Calvin Trillin happily mentions at least once in every book: the front counter offering knishes, strudels, latkes and soups; a few tables in back for waiter service; an ancient machine to mash the potatoes; and the unfailing presence of co-owner Alex Volfman, who bought his share 30 years ago after working his way up from running the register. Even the new-by-comparison chef, Josef Yagudavev, has been handforming Yonah’s massive dumplings in its downstairs kitchen for more than a decade.

Yagudavev starts by making the dozens fillings and the pastry dough, which is thin like a strudel’s, though not quite as flaky. Working on a long table, he rolls out a section, slathers on a mound of mashed potatoes, sweet-sour purple cabbage, kasha, or, just as common these days, chipotle or jalapeño-potato-cheese filling. It’s all rolled up into a fat log about four feet long, then sliced into four-inch wedges which Yagudavev deftly forms into rounds with a few twists of his hands, a little filling peeking out at top and bottom. He bakes them in one of several ancient ovens, and finally sends them by an archaic, flower-painted dumb-waiter to the shop above where hipsters, old-timers, tourists, kids and award-winning food writers wait around for the latest delivery from downstairs.

The pastry is paper-thin and crispy; the filling, warm and hearty; the spicy brown mustard provided at the tables a perfectly tart counterbalance to the creamy carbo load. These knishes are a thing of beauty to behold and a pleasure to eat.

They’re also, says Annie Hauck-Lawson, associate professor of health and nutrition at Brooklyn College and a food writer who examines culture and history, a dying breed: “Now you can count them on one hand,” she says, meaning authentic knishes from places like Mendy’s, Midtown’s tiny In-House Nosh Café, the Second Avenue Deli, Zabar’s (and now the new Friedman’s Delicatessen in Chelsea Market). There’s also a dwindling number of far-flung knisheries in Jewish neighborhoods only the carbo-committed trek to, like Aidell’s Delicatessen in Brooklyn, a favorite of Schwartz’s, or the wonderful Knish Nosh in Rego Park, Queens.

Hauck-Lawson grew up in a Catholic family and didn’t sample knishes ’til later in life; she still remembers her knish conversion in the 1970s after a day of swimming near Coney Island. It was a blueberry and sweet cheese from Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, which, until it closed a few years ago, was a chowhound destination on Brighton Beach Boulevard. “They were the perfect combination of sweet, savory and salty,” says Hauck-Lawson, who always took many a doubter there: “People would take a bite,” she says, “and go ‘ahhhh.'”

Hauck-Lawson herself hated her first knish, however, a fried, square affair she tasted in Central Park as a teenager. “It sat like a lead weight in my stomach,” she recalls. “Let’s just say I was unimpressed.”

The street knish—square, not round; fried instead of baked—came about around 1921, according to Schwartz. That’s when the Gabay family, who had run a city knishery, created the sealed, fried variety perfect for mass-production: It could be frozen for supermarkets or street carts and reheated without disintegrating like a traditional knish. Sold under the name Gabila’s, they became a hit along the beach at Coney Island back in its heyday, before declining into those leaden bricks that rode hot dog carts until the Giuliani administration’s late-’90s crackdown on what was perceived as the perfect food for bacterial contamination.

These days only larger carts with a more efficient cooking setup can operate as a sidewalk knishery, which from Volfman’s perspective is fine: “Those fried knishes that they sell on the street,” he says, “that is not a knish.”

“What is a knish?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s the same as 100 years ago. The same potato, the same salt, the same pepper, the same onion. There’s no recipe—nothing has changed.”

Pizza makers and hot dog vendors might have said the same thing 10 or 15 years ago, before the advent of Una Pizza Napoletana or Co., or the super-cool East Village frankfurter shop Crif Dogs. Which hopefully means the city can expect its first artisanal knishery to hit south of 14th Street any second. I, for one, will be ready and waiting with the mustard.

Like Annie Hauck-Lawson, Rachel Wharton didn’t meet a real knish until later in life, despite a decades-long love of anything that combines as many carbohydrates as possible. As deputy editor for Edible Manhattan, she’s making up for lost time.

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell