Ah, New York… Heaven for foodies. Jewish foodies, too! In her new book, Food and the City, Ina Yalof shares the stories of over 50 movers and shakers in New York’s food scene. The Jewish food scene, of course, forms a big part of this, from Zabar’s to Fox’s U-bet syrup, and everything in between. I could practically smell and taste Jewish deli staples, just from her descriptions.
Yalof has spent her professional career as an investigative journalist and non-fiction author reporting on a variety of diverse topics: medicine and science, religion and happiness and many more. She also taught fiction writing in Dartmouth College’s ILEAD program. More recently, Yalof shifted her focus to food because we have become a nation of “foodies,” and she wanted to explore what makes food-people tick and learn how they view their world.
Jewish Food Experience: Of all the “voices” you heard while researching for your book, whose stood out the most to you?
Ina Yalof: Ah, not an easy choice, since there are 53 “food voices” in the book and each is so completely different. Food and the City is an oral history, which means that each person tells his or her story. To be included in the book, each story had to be informative, entertaining, compelling or just plain fun (and many were often all four).
So, to answer your question, I’m going to select two people who best exemplify two criteria: personal history—that is, who they are—and occupation, or what they do. The person with the most compelling personal history was 86-year-old Sam Solasz, the son of a Polish butcher, who, during the war, as a young teen, was a heartbeat away from Treblinka. When he realized the train he was on was headed for that camp, he jumped, running into a nearby forest where he hid with others like himself for three years. At the end of the war, he landed in a DP camp and at age 17 was on a boat to New York City. After several meat-related jobs, he started his own wholesale meat purveyor business, Master Purveyor, which today is the largest provider of meat to the city’s upscale restaurants and marketplaces. He’s 86 now and still comes in at midnight to start his 14-hour day. Talk about resilience!
Creatively speaking, I have to go with Eddie Schoenfeld, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who dreamed of one day becoming a fineschmecker [connoisseur] (his words) in Chinese food. Staying true to his dream, and doing whatever it took to make it happen, he is today the absolute king of New York’s Chinese restaurants, having opened or owned well over a hundred of them in New York City alone. His story is inspiring, and his latest restaurant, Red Farm, is currently Zagat-rated number-one Chinese restaurant in the city. Remember when Congress was vetting Elena Kagan for Supreme Court justice and someone asked her where she was on Christmas several years earlier? She replied, “I don’t remember exactly, but being Jewish, I’m sure I was having Chinese food somewhere.” If it was in New York City, she was probably rubbing shoulders with Eddie Schoenfeld.
JFE: Which New York City food establishment do you visit most often and what is your regular dish of choice?
IY: Hands down, the answer is Zabar’s. One reason is that I live around the corner from this iconic establishment, and whether or not I need anything, I often find myself walking through the doors and wandering up and down the aisles just to inhale the inimitable aroma of dill pickles, corned beef, smoked salmon and freshly baked bagels. I swear, if I could bottle that smell, I’d set up a stand outside of the store and make a fortune!
JFE: What was a memorable Jewish food experience you had while interviewing people for your book?
IY: A number of people in my book have inherited their jobs. I call that chapter “Duck and Other Dynasties” because some of the people in that chapter are third and fourth generation. Amy Rubenstein, for example, is second-generation owner of the world-famous Peter Luger Steak House. Amy’s father, a metal factory owner, ate at Peter Luger on a daily basis as it was across from his Brooklyn office. When the restaurant went on auction 50 years ago, knowing nothing about the restaurant business, he bought it (he was the only bidder, as it turned out). When he died, Amy took over with her sister, and the two women have been running it ever since. I will literally dive into one of the spectacular steaks any chance I get—providing I can score a reservation, which is not easy.
I also interviewed David Fox from Fox’s U-bet and shared an egg cream with him. David is the third generation of Fox’s, and his son is waiting in the wings. In the book, he tells the story of his grandfather, who founded the Fox’s syrup company in the 1920s, and who was a gambler. It seems Brooklyn-born Grandpa Fox went to Texas one day and speculated on a land offering, without a clue of what he was buying. He lost his money, but he did come back with a new expression everyone in Texas was using: “You bet!” And thus, Fox’s U-bet was born. Today, everyone has their own way of making an egg-cream—soda first and then the syrup, syrup first and then the milk, etc. But one thing is certain, if the syrup isn’t Fox’s U-bet, it isn’t a “real” egg cream.
JFE: What is a Jewish food item you like to eat year-round?
IY: I adore corned beef on warm Jewish rye, mustard and pickles. I’m not sure if it’s because I love the taste or because it reminds me of my mother. I remember as a girl, she’d take me to the deli with her, and she’d stand at the counter, and this would be the conversation with the clerk:
Her: I want some corned-beef. Fresh sliced. Lean.
Clerk: Okay, lean corned-beef. How much?
Her: A few slices. Not too thick.
Clerk: Few slices. Not thick.
Her: Not fatty.
Clerk: Lean corned beef.
Her: Not so thick. You’re making it thick!
Clerk: Sorry, ma’am, I’ll make it thinner.
Her: I don’t want that piece, it’s too fatty.
Clerk: Ma’am, if you would just [wrapping it]…Here you are, ma’am. Five slices, thin, lean, not fatty, freshly sliced corned beef.
Her: Okay. You got pastrami, too?
There is not a single time I order it anywhere that that scenario doesn’t play out in my head.
JFE: Which other city have you visited that is comparable to NYC in terms of its Jewish food offerings?
IY: In the introduction to my book, I make it quite clear that there are few, if any, cities that can compare to New York in terms of Jewish food offerings. But if I had to choose, I’d probably vote for my hometown of Miami Beach, where, as a kid, my social life revolved around Jewish restaurants. We always ate at Wolfies, the Rascal House, Junior’s and The Nosherie at the Saxony Hotel. None of those exist today—time marches on—but there is still a plethora of glatt kosher restaurants sprinkled all over the city.
What I have noticed in New York is that even though some of the more famous Jewish restaurants have shut their doors (Rappaport’s, Ratner’s and the Stage Delicatessen come to mind), there are still a large number that remain. Katz’s Deli is still going strong (third generation taking over), as are Russ and Daughters (third generation as well), Second Avenue Deli and Barney Greengrass.
Also, in keeping with the changing tastes of the new generation, an increasing number of ethnic kosher restaurants are popping up all over the city. On the Upper West Side, within blocks of where I live, you can easily find kosher sushi, kosher pizza, kosher Chinese food and many more. This in addition to the increasing number of hummus restaurants and my new favorite, the Israeli-based Mill and Seed, which serves tahini ice cream topped with halva. It doesn’t get much better than that!