Laura Silver is the author of the book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food and an award-winning journalist whose writing on food and culture has appeared in The New York Times and the Forward and on NPR. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Je suis Charlie.
Je suis juive.
And yes, je suis knish.
The world is still reeling from brutal attacks in Paris. The events of Ferguson and the Eric Garner trial resonate. Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s time to consider the knish as an instrument of social justice.
The carbohydrate-rich knish stuffs the stomach and provides caloric intake for a low price point. The pillow of dough — round or square, sweet or savory — could feed an army, a small family or serve a single person for two meals. There’s a low barrier to entry for this simple food that is easy to produce in vegan and gluten-free varieties.
2. Instrument of Peace
Knish maker Gussie Schwebel offered to share “the humble knish” with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt – and asked if she could be of service to her adopted country “by way of introducing the knish, which is very wholesome and not costly to produce, into the diet of our armed forces.” And, years later proclaimed her potato pies as a catalyst for rapprochement on domestic and international fronts. She set out manufacture “Republican and Democratic knishes — the delicious dishes” and believed that knishes, when served with vodka, could help bring an end to the Cold War and usher in an era of world peace.
3. Catalyst for Caring
The 1970 novel Teitelbaum’s Window by Wallace Markfield introduces the Knishe Queen, who reigns over the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, with tenacity and a taste for the political, as evidenced by her letter to Mahatma Gandhi:
We want to once again wish you good luck in your freeing of India.
Our biggest hope of the Brighton Beach Jewish community is that
you don’t overdo it with your fasting because your country is not
going to appreciate if you come out of prison a nervous wreck.
May we therefore suggest that you think of yourself and do what
is good for you by breaking your fast on one of our blackberry or
gooseberry currant knishes which are so lightly fried in the finest
quality peanut oil that the word fried doesn’t even apply. As made
in our modern kitchens, these knishes are strictly parveh, meat
doesn’t go anywhere near them.
4. Capsule of Culture
The knish has been immortalized by Issac Baschevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and Barbra Streisand, who, in her welcome back to Brooklyn concert in 2012, adapted the lyrics of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the musical Sunset Boulevard to pay homage to the street food of her youth.
Yes, a world with hot knishes
Is incredibly delicious
Hip hop artist SD3 (an abbreviation of Sammy Davis III) has used the knish to bridge cultural and culinary divides – and to spur conversations, using — nu? — the knish. Case in point, the lyrics of ditty he belts out in a music video set at – where else? – a bar mitzvah.
One Potato, Two Potato, Three Knish
A table full of Bubbe’s goodies is what I wish.
The potato pie also works as an ambassador. Wrapped pastries like Jamaican patties, aloo pies, samosas and empanadas that occur in culinary traditions of all ethnicities and flavors count as knishing cousins.
5. Champion of Underdogs and Unmentionables
The knish doesn’t shy away from tender topics. Nightclub crooner Pearl Williams harnessed its Yiddish slang meaning to project female power. Her 1961 record album (yes, vinyl), A Trip around the World Is Not a Cruise, oozed innuendos, loud, proud and unapologetic.
I found a new way to do it. For money.
Don’t laugh. For years … I was doing it for love. Then one day I
took a ride through the Holland Tunnel and I saw a big sign: “Pay as
you enter.” What an idea hit my brain. Now I have a tattoo above the
knish: “Pay as you enter.” Underneath, I have a tattoo: “Thank you,
call again. Member of the Diners Club.”
So, if you’re feeling distraught about the state of the world, or need to summon strength for a Day of Service, reach for a knish. It contains multitudes and will help you steel yourself for the challenges to come. Remember, it’s not our job to finish it, but we must begin.
Laura Silver has been a writer in residence at the Millay Colony, the Banff Centre, and the New York Public Library. She is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish.
- Reading List: The Deli
- Jewish Soul Food: From Minsk to Marrakesh, More Than 100 Unforgettable Dishes Updated for Today’s Kitchen by Janna Gur
- Reading List: Social Justice/Tikkun Olam