Laura Silver, the world’s leading expert on the knish, believes that it is time to bring the knish to the White House. She explains that the knish already has deep roots in politics. For decades, no candidate could be elected in New York without having a photograph taken while holding a knish.
At her recent signing of her book Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, DC, Silver and the audience agreed that a seasonal, healthy knish would be perfect for the White House. Silver believes knishes represent a natural progression from the many “knishing cousins,” such as dumplings and samosas, which have probably appeared at meals there before.
Knish takes you with Silver on her epic international journey to discover the source of knishes and those who have carried the tradition forward. She even traveled to Poland armed with photos of knishes to “dismantle the language barrier” and help her on her quest.
Along the way, Silver found knish roots in Christianity and the Polish town of Knyszyn (looks almost like “knish,” no?) where she found a personal family connection to the town, met knish dynasties and learned that the knish has been mentioned on several popular TV shows and in gangsta rap music. “At its core,” Silver says, “the knish consists of bringing voice and heft and attention to experiences that could have easily been swept under the rug.”
Part serious scholar and part comedienne, Silver is an entertaining speaker. Her book is a heartfelt and amusing read that begins with a journey to connect with a food she shared with her late grandmother and later reveals that the word “knish” has been used as slang for a woman’s privates. Silver herself is a thoroughly funny, modern woman, but with the soul of a bubbe.
Silver’s knish of all knishes is from a place I remember in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, called Mrs. Stahl’s. Silver searched far and wide to find Mrs. Stahl’s descendants to learn how to make her beloved knishes. “Mrs. Stahl’s was the gold standard of knishes,” according to local attorney Jay Krupin (son of Mel, owner of the former DC Jewish institution, Krupin’s Deli). Born in Brooklyn, Krupin remembers men lugging bags of Mrs. Stahl’s knishes onto the beach to sell in the blazing summer heat.
The global name today in knishes is Gabila’s, which started on Coney Island, but now produces in eastern Long Island. The factory had a fire in 2013 and had to shut down production for a while. My mother, Toby Marcus, who lives in Long Island, recalls that “the ladies were in an uproar,” wondering how they would ever survive without their square and deep-fried knishes from Gabila’s. During this catastrophe, Silver was even interviewed by Al-Jazeera television to comment. Clearly, the crisis was not just local.
My own heart lies with the potato knish, but Silver sees herself as the ambassador of the kasha (buckwheat) knish. On a recent trip to Long Island, I finally tasted my first kasha knish, and I now appreciate the fuss. Notwithstanding its allure of texture and heartiness, it still doesn’t trump potato. Silver says that when it comes to knish flavors, “You have to keep an open mind.”
At her DC talk, Silver explored knish roots in the mid-Atlantic and mentioned their presence in Orioles Park for many years. Locally, kosher knishes are sold at Shalom Kosher, Max’s Kosher Café and Moti’s Market and Grill. Union Market’s Buffalo & Bergen offers them (not kosher) in different flavors. Frozen knishes of many flavors and sizes are sold in supermarkets.
Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food helped me reclaim my own love for knishes. I grew up on Yonah Schimmel’s and Shatzkin’s (a distant relative of mine), whose histories Silver chronicles in the book. Yet once they became more commercialized, I rejected knishes that were no longer as good as I remembered.
At the Sixth and I event, I brought Laura a knish that I baked using Mrs. Stahl’s recipe in the book. Even she was amazed how much it looked like the one on the cover of the book. I have made them several times now, and they are truly scrumptious. Go back to your roots, read this lovely ode to knishes and then bake them yourself—it’s not difficult, really—at least until I start selling them, which I am tempted to do.