The Humble Knish: Chock-Full Of Carbs And History

Jun 1, 2014
Originally published on June 5, 2014 5:45 am

When Laura Silver's favorite knish shop in New York closed it doors, she started to investigate why it shut down. And that led to a years-long research project, she tells Weekend Edition's Rachel Martin.

Her book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food explores the history of the baked delicacy filled with meat or vegetables and what it means to the people who love it.

Silver says her grandmother used to take her to a knish shop called Mrs. Stahl's, in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach neighborhood. It was where generations of her family — and many others — regularly got their knish fix.

But two years after her grandmother died, Silver biked down to Brighton Beach and found that Mrs. Stahl's was no more. "It had become a Subway sandwich shop," she says.

It was an emotional punch. "I wanted to know what happened," Silver says. "I had a stake in this shop — three generations of my family had been going there."

She eventually found out that an Italian pasta-maker in New Jersey had purchased the recipe for the knish. "And that fueled the flames, too, because I felt like the knish was on a different cultural continuum," she says.

So Silver made it her mission to trace the history of the Jewish dish in New York. And that led her to profile several well-known knish-makers.

One of them, Ruby Oshinsky, sold his knishes out of a cart to schoolchildren in Brooklyn. In the summers, Silver says, he went to the Catskills and sold the pies out of a van, which he had outfitted with an oven. He was so well-known that a woman named Bonnie Abrams wrote a song about him.

Another, Gussie Schweibel, almost got Eleanor Roosevelt to try her knishes. When word got out that Schweibel would be delivering a batch to Roosevelt's apartment in New York, throngs gathered outside, and Roosevelt's secretary had to turn the delivery away.

These days, Silver says, knishes are cool again. The pastries are now available across the country and around the world. "The knish has entered hipster lingo," Silver says. "I do believe a knish renaissance is about to take hold."

What's the best way to enjoy them?

"Piping hot," Silver says. "The cold knish cannot be redeemed."

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Writer Laura Silver felt an unrecognizable void when her grandmother died. A few years later, a second emotional punch came - the bakery where her grandmother used to take her to buy fresh knishes closed its doors. Mrs. Stahl's, as it was called, was a New York institution. Generations of families had relied on it for its knishes, those savory pastries Eastern European immigrants brought to America in the early 1900s.

So Laura Silver set off on a quest to find out why her family's favorite knish place was closing, which turned into a project about the history of these baked delicacies and what it means to the people who love them. Laura Silver joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURA SILVER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So before we get any further, I think we need you to describe, in your own words, what a knish is, and when are they at their best and worst, for that matter?

SILVER: Wow. Good question. A knish is a pillow of dough that's filled with mashed potatoes. And I believe that a knish is best served hot - piping hot, aromatic, that scent of onions and baked dough just wafting through the air. And probably at it's less best when it's cold.

MARTIN: (Laughter) The cold knish cannot be redeemed.

SILVER: Well, with a little heat, it can be fixed up a bit.

MARTIN: And so what was that like - the moment when you realized that this knishery - is that a word? A knishery?

SILVER: Yes. It certainly is.

MARTIN: Is it? Wow. Yeah.

SILVER: With a Y. I'd put a Y at the end.

MARTIN: This legendary knishery was closing. You didn't take this so well.

SILVER: It was in November. I remember kind of a cold day. And I biked to Brighton Beach. And I got there so eager for a knish. And I saw these plastic flags outside the shop. And those are the plastic flags that signal a grand opening. And for me, it was a grand closing. Mrs. Stahl's, for 70 years, stood beneath the elevated subway. And on that day, I found out it had become a Subway sandwich shop.

MARTIN: So you decided to use this as an opportunity to trace the history of the knish with a special focus on its history in New York. And as part of that in the book, you profile several knish makers. Can you tell us out Ruby Oshinsky?

SILVER: Yes. Well, Ruby the knish man was a man who sold knishes that were called mom's knishes, oddly. And he was known for bringing his knishes around in a metal cart to schools in parts of Brooklyn. In the summers, Ruby went to the Catskills. And he sold his knishes out of a van and a truck - kind of a car that he styled with an oven and a heating oven in the trunk. This was his own invention. And so strong is the Ruby lure that a woman named Bonnie Abrams wrote a song about him called "Ruby's Knishes."


BONNIE ABRAMS: (Singing) I want to sing of Ruby's knishes. It's been one of my fondest wishes to taste the potato and the kasha I ate when I was a (unintelligible). Now if you don't know what a knish is...

MARTIN: You also tell the story in the book about another knish legend. Her name was Gussie Schweibel. Who was she?

SILVER: Well, Gussie Schweibel was a woman who had a knish up on Houston street not too far from where Yonah Schimmel's knish shop stands today. And she is someone who wanted to serve her country. She was an immigrant, and she wanted to serve her country by serving knishes to the armed forces. And she sent her suggestion to none other than Eleanor Roosevelt. And Mrs. Schweibel also wanted Eleanor Roosevelt to taste these handmade knishes.

MARTIN: She was very bold.

SILVER: No kidding.

MARTIN: Mrs. Schweibel

SILVER: She was a great PR agent for herself. She took an article in which she had been mentioned, and she sent it to the first lady. And lo and behold, she was invited to deliver knishes to Eleanor Roosevelt's Upper Eastside apartment. However, there was a snafu. It was written about in the morning paper. So many people got excited and apparently they were throngs gathered there - so many throngs.

MARTIN: To witness the delivery of the knishes?


SILVER: Yes. To witness the first ever knish delivery to a first lady.

MARTIN: So what is the state of the knish now? You write that it is taking hold in younger generations of food types who are trying to revive it.

SILVER: Yeah. I do believe it is. The knish has entered hipster lingo. It's available in many places across the country and even the world. And there is a guy in New York who started his own knish business on the Lower East Side. It's called Kinshery NYC. And I do believe a knish renaissance is about to take hold.

MARTIN: Laura Silver. Her new book is called "Knish: In Search Of The Jewish Soul Food." She joined us from our studios in New York. Laura, thanks so much.

SILVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.