“For Hanukkah, we have latkes. But Christmas is an important holiday for Jews. Let's harness the knish for its power to harken back to what's great about being a Jew. It's about not feeling left out."
So says Laura Silver before taking the podium at a recent Tampa Jewish Book Festival talk at Maestro's at the David A. Jr. Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Perhaps the suggestion is a little suspect coming from the world's leading knish expert. She probably thinks knishes are a dandy Easter or Columbus Day treat as well. But there's something to it.
For mourning and for a number of holidays, round foods feature prominently for Jews, a gentle reminder of the circle of life. At Rosh Hashana it's the round challah bread, Passover's hard-boiled eggs, and the list goes on. So in December, Silver suggests a little knish-mas.
Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, started at sundown Tuesday and ends at sundown on Dec. 24.
She says every culture has its stuffed dough pastries — "knishing cousins," she calls them — but she thinks the knish has the upper hand, in part because "its unusual name is a charmer." (Whether you eat them with a knife or your knuckles, please don't go silent on the knish's "k.")
Silver's own knish saga begins with an ending. She grew up eating knishes from Mrs. Stahl's bakery in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. And even as a grownup she made the pilgrimage, picking up a bag of potato knishes to take to her grandmother's nursing home, and even noshing a few in memory once that grandmother had died.
And then, in 2005, Mrs. Stahl's was no more. The recipe was sold to an Italian pastamaker in New Jersey and life went on. But Silver wasn't ready to bid farewell to this "outgrowth of Jewish middle class life, the de facto neighborhood food." She hunted down Mrs. Stahl's descendant in San Francisco and learned knish technique. She ventured to the Polish town of Knyszyn (that's "nishen"), a town renamed, so the legend goes, by the king because he liked the local pastries so much.
She mined knish lore, trolling the streets of Manhattan's long-lost Knish Alley and sifting through library archives to tweeze out knish history (including Eleanor Roosevelt's near-knish illumination). And from all this sprang Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food (Brandeis University Press, May 2014; $24.95).
Over a lunch of potato and cheddar knishes from Clearwater's Brooklyn Knish, Silver charmed the book festival audience with tales of this starchy snack, long beloved as a cheap street food. The dough: usually just flour and water. The filling: often sturdy mashed potato with a little onion. But in that Proustian memory-burnishing way, Silver spoke of the refrain she heard repeatedly in her research: "You can't get a good knish anymore."
People's nostalgia for the knishes of their youth, Silver thinks, is linked to mourning "the loss of a time that wasn't so sexy or lovely, but that nonetheless is gone forever." Still, there's no unanimity about the perfect knish. For some it's with mustard, for others sour cream. Some are purists and insist on potato only, and some are more liberal: a curried beef knish dipped in white chocolate (that's in California, natch). For Silver, some of this knish bickering is part of the fun.
"Where there's knish, there's sparks."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.