Silver, author of the new book, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, describes the knish as “a pillow of filling tucked into a skin of dough.” That filling might be potato, mushroom, cheese, vegetable–or Silver’s personal favorite, kasha.
When she travels from her Brooklyn home to appear on October 14th and December 2 at the JCC of Paramus to talk about her “memoir meets travelogue,” Silver will draw from a lifetime of knish-eating, as well as the seven-year journey that went into researching all things knish.
In 2005, when Mrs. Stahl’s, the famous knishery near her grandmother’s home in Brighton Beach, closed its doors, Silver, who admits to being “40-ish,” embarked on a quest to find the origins of this comfort food.
Her research, and noshing, took her from New York to the Midwest and on to “France, Israel and Poland, where I found out that my mother’s mom was born in Knyszyn, Poland, and that I am in fact a direct descendant of the knish."
She says this ancestral town lies in “the knish corridor” that includes Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Romania.
“I like to say that the knish found me," she says. "It’s a birthright, and when it was gone, I found myself out of sorts, so I had to take action."
She refers to this simple comfort food as part of a “global family of dough-wrapped knishing cousins” that includes the empanada, dumpling, samosa, gyoza and calzone.
A grant from Brandeis University enabled her to complete the project and produce her 280-page book.
Silver reports that New Jersey is home to a champion knish eater.
In July of 2009, crowds came to Coney Island “from Bensonhurst, Flatbush, the Bronx and the Upper West Side of Manhattan” to see the 242-pound competitive eater Joel Podelsky of Iselin, gobble down 5 ¾ bulging knishes in five minutes to beat out “ten knish noshers” and win a pair of tickets to a Mets game.
In recent years, Podelsky has changed his ways and now weighs 100 pounds less than he did in his competitive eating days. In fact, he’s become a weight-loss guru.
Knishes can be purchased at several New Jersey locations, including::
–Deli King of Linden
–Deli King of Clark
–Harold’s Deli, Edison
–Lox, Stock & Deli, Milltown
Silver’s journey also took her to Conte’s Pasta, a business in Vineland that purchased the rights to Mrs. Stahl’s knish recipe when Mrs. Stahl’s closed. For awhile, Conte’s baked knishes and shipped them to the distributors who were continuing to provide Stahl knishes to various retail stores, delis and so on.
One by one, those distributors stopped distributing knishes. "Due to dramatically shrinking demand," Silver says, "Conte’s has ceased production and wants to sell the recipe."
Fortunately, Silver was able to get Mrs. Stahl’s granddaughters to recreate the potato variety, and the recipe is included in the book so readers can make their own knishes the old-fashioned way.
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.
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