By Kim Choe
“The knish is a repository for stories. Many of them kind of predictable, but some of them remarkable. I think they touch on something that’s a shared experience.”
RECIPE: MRS STAHL’S POTATO KNISHES
When Laura Silver’s favourite knishery closed, it felt like she’d lost an old friend.
“It was a huge sense of loss and bewilderment, like having the rug pulled out from underneath me,” she recalls.
The store, Mrs Stahl’s Knishes, had been a fixture at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York, since the mid-1930s. Generations of Laura’s family were loyal patrons of its knishes – baked dumplings stuffed with potato and onion- as well as the shop that sold them.
“The windows were generally fogged, there was this orange formica countertop that went the length of the place, and even in the ‘70s and the ‘80s it had these nostalgic, historic pictures of the Brighton Beach boardwalk.”
More than anything else, it was the aroma of fresh-baked knishes that felt comforting and familiar to her.
“There’s something so wonderful about smelling onions mixed with a scent of fresh-baked bread. It was just this sense of being in this warm, cocoon-like place.”
Knishes are synonymous with New York’s Jewish cuisine, having been brought over by Eastern European immigrants sometime in the early 20th century.
The first-known reference to a knish is in a Polish poem in 1614, but the snack as New Yorkers know it – round, not square; baked, not fried – is now more likely to be found within the city’s five boroughs than anywhere else in the world.
Mrs Stahl’s Knishes went out of business in 2005. It had resided below Coney Island’s raised subway line and, in what seemed like a cruel joke to New York’s knish faithful, was replaced by a Subway sandwich franchise.
For Laura, the disappearance of the knishery represented the loss of a portal to the increasingly murky past, not only for her own family but to the general knish-eating community of New York. Being an author, she harnessed her sense of loss in the best way she could: by writing a book.
Research for Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, took her all over the city and then to Poland as she gathered knish stories across time and place.
“The knish is a repository for stories. Many of them kind of predictable, but some of them remarkable. I think they touch on something that’s a shared experience. ‘Knish’ itself as a word is kind of a signifier of a certain time and place, or ethnic experience. It doesn’t have to be Jewish – there are lots of people who are from New York and who identify with the knish as a street food – it’s been mentioned in rap songs and things like that. So it’s really a cultural collateral.”
One woman likened the loss of Mrs Stahl’s Knishes to the closure of Ebbett’s Field, the stadium of Major League Baseball team the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But Laura’s biggest discovery was that her maternal grandmother was born in a Polish town called Knyszyn (pronounced ‘knishen’).
There’s no clear evidence that the knish came from Knyszyn, but that doesn’t stop Laura from joking delightedly, “I’m a direct descendant of the knish!”
She describes her family as “religious purchasers of the knish”, and says making one for the first time felt like sacrilege. However, when she did finally get her hands dirty they revealed a new, deeper connection; a way to recreate the past in the present.
“To those people who bemoan the lack of knishes from their childhood, I say, why don’t you create something new?”
You can also recreate Mrs Stahl’s famed version thanks to her recipe, which has been published by her granddaughters to ensure the bready, savoury aromas linger for years to come.
RECIPE: MRS STAHL’S POTATO KNISHES
Laura Silver’s book ‘Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food’ is available for purchase in the Kitchen Chapters bookstore.