15 January 2010

Happy Birthday, Yonah!

City Room has published a nice tribute to Yonah Schimmel, which is celebrating it's 100th year:

The lowly knish, that humblest of pies, has turned 100, or at least the place that sells them has. No one knows for sure, of course, when or where the knish was actually invented. Nor does anyone know the precise date a knish became a knish. But in 1910, Yonah Schimmel’s opened a knishery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Since then, the knish has been elevated into a staple of political campaign fare. It has been imitated, mass produced, fast frozen and Americanized.

Yonah Schimmel’s knishery, meanwhile, survived at 137 East Houston Street largely untouched, a relic in a gentrified neighborhood (the bakery and restaurant is sandwiched between a hotel that bills itself as being located in “trendy SoHo” and an art movie house).

It has been immortalized in fiction and film (most recently in Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” when Larry David takes his Southern girlfriend on a date to Grant’s Tomb and then for a knish) and fine art (including Hedy Pagremanski’s painting at the Museum of the City of New York).

Yonah Schimmel’s, its original tin roof intact, describes itself as the oldest knishery in America.

“People ask, ‘Are your knishes fresh?’” said Ellen Anistratov, who owns the knishery with her father, Alex Wolfson. “I say, ‘They’re a hundred years old.”

A knish is loosely defined as a thin dough shell filled with potato or buckwheat groats (kasha) and finely chopped onion, but the ingredients run the gamut from spinach ($3.50) to blueberry cheese ($4). While Mrs. Anistratov recently invented a red cabbage variety, she remains a traditionalist.

“You can make what you want and call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t make it the real thing,” she said. “I don’t mean to insult anyone else, but a knish is round, baked and made of potato or mixed with potato. It’s not square. It’s not fried.”

When several women visiting from Long Island came to the bakery recently and were disappointed not to find the square variety made popular by street vendors and some delicatessens, Mrs. Anistratov offered a persuasive defense of her handmade, kosher knishes that arrive in the ground-floor shop (soup, kugel and egg creams are served, too) from the basement ovens on an original dumbwaiter and have the heft of doorstops.

“Would you like to wear Chanel, or a copy of Chanel?” she asked.

No government agency authenticates knishes, but Harry Golden, the chronicler of Jewish America, pronounced Yonah Schimmel (the spelling of his surname varies) the “inventor” of the knish, and Leo Rosten, the Yiddish maven, defined a knish as “an American nosh” popularized by a number of celebrated bakers, “in particular, Yonah Shimmel.” (Rosten added that the word had mysteriously taken on several other meanings, citing it also as “a term of abuse. He has the brains of a knish.”)

In “The Underground Gourmet,” Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder wrote in 1968 that “No New York politician in the last 50 years has been elected to office without having at least one photograph showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face.”

Mrs. Anistratov, a fashion designer by training, insists that her knishes are not only tasty, but healthy, too, without eggs, oil or yeast.

“I had a cold a month ago,” she recalled. “I couldn’t get better until I had a knish.” (The health value is unverified, but an academic paper by doctors at Albany Medical College several years ago describes a patient’s “rapid and unexpected recovery from acoustic trauma” after eating a potato knish).

According to one account, Schimmel, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, began peddling his wife’s knishes in Coney Island in the 1890s. He later abandoned his pushcart and his career as a Torah scribe and he and his cousin, Joseph Berger, opened a store on Houston Street. Two years later, Yonah returned to teaching Torah, and Mr. Berger and his wife, Schimmel’s daughter, Rose, took over the business. In 1910, the store moved across the street to its current site.

Today, the shop ships knishes overnight anywhere in the United States and also sells them fresh at some New York food markets.

Wait. Yonah's cousin married his daughter?


mingusal said...

Too bad their product isn't better. Beautiful old store, great story, but tired, dried out, and just plain not very well made knishes.

Jill said...

Are you kidding? The knishes here are terrific, and the borscht in a cup is one of my favorite things. This is possibly one of the few stores that would break me down into a pile of lumpen coal if it closed. I'm pretty sure they own the building so it's not going anywhere until they say so, which is the way it should be.

Jackie said...

My grandfather used to go here in the 1920s when he was a kid living in a tenement on Rivington Street. As long as I can remember, he kept a postcard of this store in his home office. He liked to tell a story about how sometime in the late 80's or early 90's he went back here and tried to pay for his knish with a nickel because that was what it cost when he was a kid. Apparently, the owners were so amused that they only charged him the five cents (I'm sure he gave a generous tip, though). Anyway, every time I walk by here, it reminds me of my grandpa. Glad to know it's still going strong.