The search for the knish
DARIEN — Like Proust’s madeleine, the knish can be a portal to the past for those who grew up eating the fabled Jewish pastry. Each bite into the flaky crust has the potential to bring the partaker back to a beach in Brooklyn, N.Y., a Manhattan street vendor, or a grandmother’s kitchen.
Laura Silver, journalist, teacher and author of “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food,” knows the power the knish holds over people who regularly consumed them in their younger years. She was joined for a lecture — freshly made knishes included — at Darien Library on Tuesday night by an older crowd, some with flavorful Brooklyn accents, apparently in attendance not so much to learn about the knish, as to reminisce about bygone days in New York.
Silver’s roots in the city coil deeply across three boroughs. Raised in Queens, she drolly refers to herself as the “product of a mixed marriage: parents from Brooklyn and the Bronx.”
As far as her own knish preferences are concerned, she leaned toward the Booklyn species.
She became a champion of Mrs. Stahl’s — a Brighton Beach institution that drew knish connoisseurs from all over the city beginning in the early 20th century, until it closed in 2005 — because her grandmother lived near the shop, and Silver and her family often ate there.
Other popular spots, Silver recalled, were Shatzkin’s of Coney Island, Hirsch’s, of Brighton Beach, and Gabila’s, now located in Long Island. Pockets of supporters in the crowd made themselves known as Silver mentioned each establishment. “There are very strong and heated opinions about knishes,” Silver said, urging peace between the different factions.
Knish shops like Mrs. Stahl’s, Shatzkin’s and Hirsch’s originally served a working-class clientele — predominantly factory workers without much time or money for lunch. According to Silver, at one point in history a particular block on the Lower East Side was the most populous place on the planet and a hub for sellers and eaters alike.
“I think of that high density and accompanying squalor as two factors that gave rise to the knish,” Silver said.
As Jewish immigrants moved up the socioeconomic ladder and out of the city, the beloved knish shops began to close down.
“The sons of Shatzkin and Hirsch both went on to become attorneys,” Silver said. Neither shop is open today.
Finally, when Mrs. Stahl’s closed in 2005 and a Subway sandwich shop was opened in its place, Silver felt compelled to act.
“It was a place that was important to my family,” she said. “I sort of thought of Mrs. Stahl and my grandmother as the same person. When my grandmother passed, I would go there to summon her.”
She set out on a quest for knish lore that extended from Poland, where her grandmother was born, to California, where she was able to track down Mrs. Stahl’s granddaughter, who invited Silver to San Francisco to make knishes.
At each stop, Silver found great variation as to how precisely a knish was defined. A knish can be square or round, fried or baked, sweet or savory, filled with meat or cheese or potatoes. Today, New York City street vendors sell them to tourists, Polish families serve them to friends and relatives in times of mourning, and Silver provides samples at library book talks such as the one in Darien.
“My close relationship with my grandmother was what sparked my devotion to this knish research,” Silver said. For her, and it would seem for much of the Connecticut crowd, the night was about more than just food.