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Nosh Pit

Last Call for the NYC Knish

I knew, standing outside of the former Mrs. Stahl’s, that I was witnessing the extinction of the knish, and there was one person I could blame.

An exterior shot of Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery.

(Hell Gate)

There’s a scene in the 2017 documentary "The Godfathers of Hardcore" that seems like it has nothing to do with knishes, but it sort of does.

Vinnie Stigma, Lower East Side legend and guitar player in the band Agnostic Front, is hanging out on his roof complaining about how you can’t keep pigeon coops up there anymore. He isn’t totally right—you can keep pigeons on the roof, but it isn’t something you can do as a casual, inexpensive hobby these days. Yet Stigma laments the loss of a part of city culture and sets the blame squarely on one person: "Fuckin' Giuliani. That fuckin' hard-on ruined my fuckin' city! He's a boondoggle motherfucker." I felt that. It made me think of knishes.

I’ve had two great knishes in the last 20 years. When I say "great," I mean the sort of thing that takes a little force to break through the exterior, but once you’re inside and you get to the filling—anything from brisket to spinach to potatoes—it’s like you’ve entered a magical chamber of starchy goodness, and not something that has been sitting out and hardening over time. (I don’t want to eat anything that feels like a metaphor for my life.) Twenty years ago, the knish was from an old lady with an Odessa accent on the Coney Island boardwalk who made them in her kitchen and sold them for two dollars each; more recently, it was a trip to Knish Nosh in the Rego Park section of Queens, a neighborhood I’m still eating my way through.

For the part of my family that grew up in NYC, the knish was once a regular part of everyday life. The other side of my family that was from Chicago knew the word, but nobody seemed to have ever had eaten one. I always found that interesting; both sides came over from the same region of the world and were all Jewish, yet only the New Yorkers would mention knish cart vendors from 30 years in the past by name, like they were old friends. The sadness in their voices as they talked of places like Shatzkin’s or Hirsch’s, where the slogan was "Hirsch’s: Try me knishes," should have tipped me off that one day I’d have my own mental graveyard of closed-up places that I’d look back on and miss.  

Everything has its limitations in this city, whether it’s a good diner or a weird, uncategorizable grift. I learned that the hard way 16 years ago as I got off the Q at the Brighton Beach stop, walked down the steps, and saw that Mrs. Stahl’s knish spot, a place that anybody I encountered who was just old enough to recall when the Dodgers played in Flatbush told me about, had closed. The spot that had been serving what many considered the best knishes in the city since 1935, was no more. It felt so wrong.

Sure, iconic places close all the time. But even in 2005, before I read food blogs or had enough extra money in my bank account to casually “check out” new restaurants, I knew standing outside of the former Mrs. Stahl’s that I was witnessing the extinction of the knish, and there was one person I could blame: "Fuckin' Giuliani. That fuckin' hard-on ruined my fuckin' city! He's a boondoggle motherfucker."

As I said, Stigma’s quote has nothing to do with knishes, but it also is totally about knishes, because it’s an example of the Giuliani effect. Lots of things and people can be blamed for the move from the "old New York" to the one people complain about today, but really, we should blame Rudy.

No, he didn’t outlaw pigeon coops. But Giuliani used the "broken windows" theory to justify racially discriminatory policing methods that led to what people often call a “Disneyfication” of the city. This in turn fueled Bloomberg’s refining of New York into a "luxury product" (a direct influence on our current mayor’s own swaggering brand of justice) which makes it prohibitively expensive and difficult to keep pigeon coops stored on residential roofs.

So the extinction of the knish is one of those things that you can blame on Giuliani—though he had help, sometimes from people from the other political party. In the ’80s, Ed Koch signed a bill that limited the number of street food vendors and continued his crackdown on the mostly immigrant-run sidewalk snack business. That legislation included regulations that, as Andrew Silverstein wrote in an article for the Forward, "forced most vendors to switch from fresh to inferior frozen knishes." In 1998, the Giuliani administration included the most important ingredient in a knish, cooked potatoes, to a list of foods deemed hazardous enough to cause food-borne illness. If you wanted to sell knishes, you had to have the equipment and permits to do it, and that costs a lot of money.

As the Times reported in 2000:

The city has thus restricted knish sales to the big so-called processing food carts, which are equipped with a small oven for cooking, along with sinks, hot and cold running water. The carts, typically used to sell grilled meats, require a separate permit and can cost $2,000 to $3,000 more than the smaller hot dog carts, which provide only a basin that holds boiling water.

A spokesperson for the health department went on record as saying there was no citywide attempt to kill the knish, but he noted the sad truth that "vendors might be finding it to be more trouble than it's worth" to sell them.

That was the beginning of the end for the knish. By making it something vendors didn’t want to sell, it essentially wiped the snack from the everyday lives of New Yorkers—first the carts disappeared, then the last of the stores started going away. Today, Yonah Schimmel's, established in 1910, remains, but barely. It’s sad but symbolic. The place is dark and decrepit, and the knishes have a mouthfeel like they’ve been waiting since the 1970s for somebody to buy them. They taste like old mashed potatoes that have been sitting out too long. And given that it sits upon a piece of real estate that most developers would gladly offer up any number of hapless victims to whatever dark lord they worship as a sacrifice in order to be able to smash it to rubble and build horrible glass condos in its place, it’s always a guessing game whether or not you’re going to wake up and read an Eater headline that says the last of the famous knish places decided to close up shop.

And while politicians can take most of the blame, there is something to be said about timing. The decline of the knish, a food that can trace its history back to Eastern European Jews settling on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, took place right before the rise of a new sort of food consciousness, one that aims to elevate and preserve food cultures, especially ones from immigrant communities that are pushed to trade in their heritage in order to become what I’m sure some cable news pundits would call "more American."

Nate Adler, who grew up in the city and opened the Williamsburg restaurant Gertie, tries to pay homage to the food of his childhood. He and his wife, Rachel, figured that because Gertie’s bagels are popular, maybe they could figure out a way to get people into knishes. "We thought we could bring it back and do it in our own way and I think we nailed it—doing a potato-leek filling and using a pretzel-like dough to surround it," he says. Gertie offered it in the pastry case with mustard or served "disco-style."

They had high hopes for the knish, thinking it could work as a new, savory pastry option, something you couldn’t get anywhere else. But it didn’t work. "We had to go from offering it daily to only on weekends, and then not at all because it wasn’t worth the time-intensive labor to sell a few a week."

Adler isn’t sure if the knish can ever make a comeback. He knows they don’t have the recognition they once did, and he suspects that the reason his own attempt at making a knish didn’t work is because his customer base is younger. As he put it, "Only old-school New Yorkers even really know what they are." But maybe that’s where hope remains for a knish comeback. There’s a certain allure in the classics, whether it’s the ones that have been around for as long as anyone can remember (the slice of pizza from some corner shop or dim sum at a place like Nom Wah) or the new takes on more niche menu items.

Consider a place like Agi’s in Crown Heights and its spin on the classic New York egg cream, which adds in some leftover cold brew to make it sort of a very Brooklyn version of sweetened nitro coffee. It’s not an original egg cream by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a weekly staple for me now. Something like that gives me hope that in a city coated thick in nostalgia, where things are always being reworked or rediscovered, where anything from green cocktails to dress codes can make a comeback, there is always hope that maybe the little starch bomb from Eastern Europe might have a future, and a life that just might outlast the mayor that banished it to near-extinction.

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