I love a good walking tour almost as much as a hands-on cooking class. So when Jennifer Abadi sent me her Syrian cooking class schedule along with dates for Context Travel’s “Jewish Cuisine and Culture” walk on the Lower East Side, NYC, I was ready to zip on my warm boots, grab a proper winter hat and prepare for a big nosh fest.
What I found was that having an expert lead me from one culinary landmark to the next, while sharing historical and social history of the neighborhood where my grandparents lived in a tenement upon landing at Ellis Island, left even this knowledgeable New York eater to some thrilling new tidbits to chew on.
Abadi, dug in deeply about this compact neighborhood, where 500,000 Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia, lived by 1910.
Along Houston Street alone, three institutions, Yona Schimmel, Russ and Daughters, and Katz’s Deli are so closely situated that we barely had time to finish chewing before we geared up for the next taste.
We started at Yona Schimmel’s, a knishery that began selling potato knishes from push carts in 1907. The narrow, simple shop has been in operation since 1910 and is still owned by descendents of the same family.
I was intrigued to see the original dumbwaiter still in use. I watched those rusty pulleys and frayed ropes hoist three sweet smelling trays, loaded with doughy squares, up from the original bakery in the basement. It was enough to set off my imagination about the century old brick ovens in the bowels of that decrepit building. Oh how I was dying to see those ovens!
The choices of fillings would surely blow my grandfather away (a baker all of his life and trained in Poland before arriving on the LES), ranging from sweet to savory, with blueberry, cherry cheese and chocolate being among the favorites. We opted for savory and bit into a steaming grape tinted pickled cabbage knish. Next time, I’ll opt for fruit over pickle so early in the morning.
And while Schimmel was selling knishes from pushcarts in 1907, Joel Russ set up his pushcart selling dried mushrooms and pickled herring from a barrel, soon after his arrival from Poland, in the same year.
Russ moved to his store, Joel Russ Cut Rate Appetizing in its current location on East Houston St. in 1914 . There were 30-40 other “appetizing” stores in the same neighborhood, competing fiercely and struggling to survive. The store’s name changed to Russ and Daughters in 1935. It is currently run by the 4th generation, great granddaughter Niki and cousin, Josh.
Russ and Daughters is an institution in NYC and a must stop for anyone who wants to experience the finest, widest selection of smoked, cured, and pickled fish. Mild and succulent, rich and smoky, salt cured …. everyone has their preferences and the counter men are happy to assist in making your choices.
Russ and Daughters is an institution that has survived the blight of the Lower East Side, the migration to the suburbs and closing of so many family businesses. You may read about the family’s personal history and culinary tales colored with vivid social history of the Lower East Side in Mark Russ Federman’s (grandson of founder, Joel Russ) new book, RUSS AND DAUGHTERS, REFLECTIONS AND RECIPES FROM THE HOUSE THAT HERRING BUILT.
Speaking of herring, try the thick fillets bathed in sour cream and raw onion. It will rock you.
Recently, Sam Sifton referred to a recipe for Lox Chowder from this book. His enthusiasm alone, has me ready to purchase the book and simmer up a pot ASAP.
From there, we moved on to Katz’s Delicatessen, in the same block since 1888 (originally on opposite corner). Jake Katz, 5th generation deli man operates the business with his Dad, Alan. They told us that at one point there were three Jewish delis all in that one block!
While Katz’s is not kosher, I politely declined the bursting corned beef on rye and took in the surroundings. A long,cavernous space lined with a hodgepodge of framed photos of stars from all eras, tells over 100 years of social and culinary history.
And who can forget that perfectly paced scene from “When Harry Met Sally”?
We moved off E. Houston and over a few blocks, by some cool shops and eating joints, signs of the miraculous resurgence and re-birth of what is now the East Village. We stopped at Economy Candy, a nostalgic collection of single pieces and bars, halavah and hamantaschen. The store was opened by Sephardic Jews in 1937 as New Yorkers were rebounding from the Depression and had a few pennies to spare on candy. It is truly unique.
On our way to Streit’s Matzah Factory, founded in 1925, we passed a painting high on a brick wall. It harkened back to Schapiro’s Kosher Wine, which was originally made in the basement of one of the kosher neighborhood restaurants. The wine production outlived the restaurant in an era when kosher wines were not commercially accessible.
Streit’s Matzah Factory owned four contiguous buildings in one block by the mid-1930’s and has been baking matzah continuously since then. With only two ovens, one in the basement and one on the fourth floor, it is a huge operation with one Rabbi as Mashkiah (supervisor) and six Rabbi’s under his watchful eye. With precision timing and stringent laws about how to bake kosher for Passover Matzah, this is a great educational stop.
We wound our way to Kossar’s Bialys, on Grand Street, to enter the oldest bialy bakery in the USA. They’ve been making bialys, bulkas, pletzels and sesame sticks for over 65 years. They claim to make it all by hand, using ground, fresh onions and the same brick oven since the beginning.
We finished at The Pickle Guys on Essex St. I was too stuffed to try any of the 35 (yes) varieties of pickles, pickled veggies and fruit and olives. Of course, they ship nationwide, as do most of these other remarkable institutions.
Most unexpected and unusual, never imagined pickled item? How about pickled pineapple chunks studded with cloves and cinnamon sticks?
Context targets their “walking seminars” towards the intellectually curious and calls their experts “docents” rather than guides. They offer a broad array of seminars all over the globe in areas like archaeology, art history, classics and environmental science.
The next scheduled “Jewish Cuisine and Culture Walk” seminsars are set for Feb. 27 and April 4 but you can sign up with a small group of three and they will run the tour any day except Monday or Saturday. Private tours are also available.
Hungry for traditional Jewish breakfast? Try Leah Koenig‘s recipe for Smoked Salmon Scrambled Eggs from The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook, Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen.
I LOVE this book and yes! I want my scrambled eggs just the way Leah makes them!
From Leah: "These eggs feature the smoky, salty taste of a Jewish breakfast icon: lox. For over the top Brooklyn flavor, spoon them on a lightly toasted everything bagel.
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 4 tablespoons chopped dill plus more for garnish
- 8 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons milk
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- half a medium onion, minced
- 4 ounces smoked salmon, roughly chopped
- Combine sour cream and dill in a small bowl and set aside in the refrigerator.
- Whisk together eggs, milk and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl and set aside.
- Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook until translucent, 5-7 minutes.
- Add eggs and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, until eggs hold together but are still slightly soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add smoked salmon and continue cooking 1-2 minutes until eggs are firm.
- Divide eggs onto serving plates and dollop sour cream mixture on top. Sprinkle with reserved dill and more pepper.
Thank you to Leah Koenig for this recipe from THE HADASSAH EVERYDAYCOOKBOOK, DAILY MEALS FOR THE CONTEMPORARY KITCHEN, 2011