World's leading knish expert Laura Silver joins the Clever Cookstr to talk about the storied history of the knish and tips for making knishes at home.
Our guest today on the Clever Cookstr is Laura Silver, a native New Yorker and award-winning journalist, whose writing on food and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Forward, the Jerusalem Report, and on NPR. Laura is the author of a fantastic book called Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food. As we get close to Rosh Hashanah this month, the Jewish new year, I thought it would be fun for Laura to stop by and talk with us about knishes at home as part of a Rosh Hashanah menu. We've also included a recipe at the end of this article..
CC: Thank you so much for being here.
LS: Thank you so much for having me.
CC: Laura, how did you become the world’s leading knish expert? Where does your passion for this food come from?
LS: I became an expert first in New York City, where I grew up, when my favorite knish shop went out of business and I went in search of it. It turned out that the recipe from Mrs. Stall’s, which was the knish shop in Brighton Beach, was actually purchased by an Italian pasta maker in southern New Jersey. As I continued my search, I found out that I, in fact, had roots in the Polish town of Knishin, making me a direct descendent of the knish, and my seven-plus years of dedicated research made me the world’s leading expert on the topic.
CC: Let’s talk a little bit about the history of knishes. I love that it’s commonly noted that each culture has its dumpling, or variation on a portable dough package for meat and vegetables and grains, and the knish is an especially meal-sized one in the realm of world dumplings. And many variations originated as street food, is that correct?
LS: Mostly I can speak for the knish. I call these other foods "knishin cousins," and they were definitely the food of everyday people. Nothing fancy. So wherever they’re served, in home kitchens, on sidewalks, on street corners, they are definitely a food of subsistence. It’s something people make when they might not have a lot of other options. In the United States, the knish probably came here about the turn of the twentieth century, so around the 1900's or a little before, with the influx of many Eastern European Jewish immigrants. And there are literary references from Shomaliha and Isaiah the Shelf Singer, and people have memories of these knishes, which graced the lower east side and the Brooklyn boardwalk and eventually fanned out to urban centers and even some small towns all across the United States and North America. But the first mention of the knish I’ve found is from a poem in Poland. It’s from the year 1614, so that means this year is the quadricentennial, or 400th anniversary, of the knish. And in that poem, the food was cited as a delicacy that was served in a town that was so multicultural, people didn’t even know what holiday they were celebrating with whom. Which is what some people might say about Rosh Hashanah these days.
CC: How might knishes fit into a Rosh Hashanah menu?
LS: I have a great example from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, where in St. Paul and Minneapolis there are two branches of a senior home, called the Shalom Home. They have a group of women there, the Women’s Auxiliary, also know as the Knish Ladies, who make knishes year-round. They’re potato knishes, two sizes, small and large, and their busiest time is Rosh Hashanah. It’s their fundraiser for the home, and this is a time when people really clamor for a taste of where they came from. So while everyone might not think of the knish as distinctly linked to Rosh Hashanah, in Minnesota it most certainly is. Knishes must be served as a side dish for the new year's dinner, as linked to Rosh Hashanah as apples and honey, if you will. But I’d say a knish can find its way into any Rosh Hashanah dinner. If you want to get totally seasonal you could make an apple knish that would be dessert-like. Or, maybe if you’re really into fusion, you may want to put some apples in your potato knishes. It could be an interesting flavor of the season. There are sweet potato knishes, kasha or grains, or buckwheat. All kinds of vegetables are encouraged, and you could even make a knish with meat, that’s totally fine. I’d say invention and collaboration are what would really make it fit well for the holiday. Bringing people together around the table, not just to eat, but to make food, could bring about some really interesting conversations and new relationships.