NEW YORK – They can be square, round, or rectangular. They can be sweet or savory. Some have dough so thin you can read the newspaper through it; others weigh enough they could be used for bicep curls.
Here at Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, the oldest knishery in New York City, the round golden pastries are definitely on the zaftig side; each measures about four inches in diameter and weighs just less than one pound. As one of the last distinctly Jewish businesses in the Lower East Side, it enjoys a constant flow of customers, nostalgic for a taste of old world cuisine.
“It’s because it’s handmade. So many things are made with machine; no one wants to do it by hand anymore, but not here,” said Alex Wolfson, a descendent of Yonah Schimmel’s as he raised the restaurant’s dumbwaiter laden with trays of piping hot jalapeno-cheddar knishes.
Wolfson, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1979, co-owns the business with his daughter Ellen Anistratov. (He declined to divulge the bakery’s annual income.) Less than a dozen employees work to keep the business running seven days a week from 9 a.m until about 7 p.m., sometimes later on weekends.
The little storefront has been around so long it’s been immortalized in popular culture. In an oil painting of the store by Hedy Pagremanski now hangs in the Museum of the City of New York’s permanent collection. Woody Allen’s 2009 film “Whatever Works” starring Larry David featured the knishery’s dining area. And photos of New York City politicians and actors are taped to the beverage case, which offers bottle of Dr. Brown sodas and Cel-Rays.
Yonah Schimmel’s was so integral to the Lower East Side that “No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face,” according to Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder’s 1968 column in New York Magazine “Underground Eats.” That proclamation is printed on a small flier, and still taped to the wall above a counter in the store.
Indeed Eleanor Roosevelt made campaign stops for her husband Franklin at Yonah Schimmel’s, and earlier, uncle Theodore Roosevelt stopped in for kasha knishes during his tenure as NYPD police commissioner.
“It’s a landmark, it’s an institution,” Laura Silver, the author of “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food,” said.
It all started in 1890 when Yonah Schimmel, a Romanian immigrant, began peddling the stuffed delights from a pushcart. Soon Schimmel and his cousin Joseph Berger rented a small store on Houston Street. After a time Schimmel left the business but Berger kept the original name. In 1910 Berger moved the business to its current location between First and Second Avenues where it now stands between an art house cinema and a hotel.
As other kosher, or kosher-style, restaurants and Jewish businesses in the area have folded due to gentrification and rising rents, Yonah Schimmel’s has survived. Today it operates as a solitary enterprise; and in this age of chain restaurants there are no plans to expand and there is no frozen franchise, as there is for brands such as Gabila’s and Cohen’s.
So while the neighborhood has changed in the century since the little bakery flung open its doors, its menu has remained remarkably the same. Aside from knishes, the menu also features matzo ball soup, potato latkes, kugel, and egg creams.
But knishes are king, and run between $3.50 and $4.00 each. The traditional mashed potato and onion, kasha, and cheese varieties are still the most popular. Yet, now customers can choose spinach and cheese, spinach and jalapeno and cheddar. There’s also a blueberry and sweet cheese, chocolate cheese knish and apple cheese.
With all that history baked into each knish, this reporter decided to bring home a sample box for a family taste test. We ordered a box of five knishes and once home we laid them out and cut them into eighths.
The first one we tried was sweet potato.
“It’s good, but it would be better with hot sauce. It’s a different take on a classic thing. It’s not usually sweet potato, it’s a little bit like Thanksgiving,” Nathan, my 17-year-old son, said, adding that he actually prefers square knishes.
After a sliver sized taste, my husband, Pierre, 53, decided the sweet potato wasn’t for him.
“It’s neither nor; I want either potato or kasha, I’m a traditional person,” he said.
And with that we went on to the two most traditional knishes on the cutting board.
“Mmmmm,” Pierre said after his first bite. “One of my first taste memories is kasha. I love kasha; I could eat it any time. The flavor is really good. I could eat one for lunch every day.”
As for the potato one, versus spinach and potato, three out of three tasters agreed: spinach and potato won hands down.
“The potato one is just a carb bomb. It’s a ton of mashed potato in dough. The spinach one has more flavor,” Pierre said.
My daughter Zoë agreed to disagree. For her the plain potato was the king of the knishes, with kasha coming in close behind.
The blueberry and sweet cheese knish was regulated to breakfast or dessert.
This reporter preferred the sweet potato one doused with Frank’s hot sauce and thought the spinach and potato one had a lot more flavor than the plain potato knish. As for the kasha, she let her husband have the rest, deciding it’s an acquired taste that she preferred not to acquire.
That we didn’t agree on knish flavors didn’t surprise author Silver, who is working on a knish cookbook.
“People have very heated feelings when it comes to the way it should taste,” Silver said.
“We expect disproportionate amount of satisfaction from a knish, it’s supposed to serve as a conveyance of memory – it’s supposed to taste like the kind your grandmother made, but can we really expect it to do that?” said Silver.