Lately I’ve been diving into Jewish cuisine, care of the Kosher section of my Remke market. I’ve been sampling frozen cherry and apple blintzes and sweet potato and zucchini latkes. I’ve learned one thing so far – do not microwave a frozen blintz, unless you want it to fall apart. They must be warmed in a skillet or convection oven. I realize that these flavors are not at all authentic to the origins of each, but there is so little Jewish cuisine history in Cincinnati to reference.
Yes, there’s the King of the Reuben, Izzy Cadet, but he’s gone and the chain is Catholic-owned by the Codfather, John Geisen. There’s the King of Bagels, John Marx of Marx Bagels. Marx even has an authentic link to the NYC bagel in the NYC-owned business he took over in Cincinnati’s former Jewish enclave of Roselawn in 1969. The funny thing is that even though his bagel shops have been the only certified Kosher bagel shops in Cincinnati, Marx is by faith, Catholic. But he retired and passed the biz along to a Jewish owner. All of my NYC expat friends lament that there is NO good New York style bagel to be had anywhere in Cincinnati. I say Big Apple Bagels on Beechmont is a good approximation. Experts say a New York bagel cannot be exported, because the flavor is in the chemical content of East River water.
So to go to the source of the blintz and the knish, another iconic Jewish food, I had to go to New York – virtually. A great new book called The Dairy Restaurant by Ben Katchor, takes you back in time to the history of both Jewish dishes. Each came through a style of Jewish restaurant called the Dairy Restaurant, or in Yiddish, the Milckhige, which were once as common in the Lower East Side of NYC as chili parlors are in Cincinnati. They are kosher restaurants that only serve dairy products, with no meat, and like the indie Cincy chili parlor, are an endangered species.
Beginning in the 1890s- the same time Macedonian, Bulgarian and Greek Chili and candy pioneers were coming to Cincinnati – Jews from Eastern Europe and the Balkans began flooding into the Lower East Side of New York City. They were mostly Ashkenazi Jews, but some Sephardic Jews as well came from Turkey and Greece. Austrian Jews formed Little Vienna on lower 2nd Street. Hungarian Jews formed Goulash Row on East Houston Street. The Bohemian Jews settled on 1st and 2nd Avenues between 70th and 80th streets. Polish, Galician, Bessarabian, and Bukinova Jews settled North of East Broadway to Houston around Bowery Street. Romanians settled on 2nd Avenue near Hester street and started the Yiddish theaters in the Bowery and Knish Alley on 2nd Avenue between 14th and Houston. And finally the Western Russian and Lithuanian Jews settled south of east Broadway to the river around Catherine Street. And, while similar, each ethnic group of Jews had a little bit different cuisine, although the Romanians and Hungarians were given the most street cred as the best restauranteurs.
The Jewish press, like Der Tog or Forvarts, and even the English speaking press began to dub kings of each Jewish dish. There was Max Green, the Knish King, there was M London, the Matzoh Ball King, Jacob Kampus was the Blintz King. Felix Marx’s Restaurant was dubbed the Kosher Delmonico’s. He was the rare unicorn known as the Alsatian Jew. And of course, there was the Bagel King, Harry Lender, a Polish Jew who came to NYC, then escaped the pressures of the Bagel Union 338 of New York to Connecticut, where he took the frozen bagel to the American public.
Both the knish and the blintz are considered dairy products and would be found at a Jewish Dairy Restaurant. They’re basically the same thing – a pastry of some sort made to wrap a dairy filling of potato, cheese, fruit, grain or vegetable. The knish is considered a dumpling, while the blintz is a rolled, thin pancake.
Much like Cincinnati’s Jewish community migrated from West End to Roselawn to Amberly Village and then to Blue Ash, Mason and beyond, New York City’s Jewish communities migrated from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn and Harlem. The conservative Hasidic Jews settled in the Williamburg neighborhood of Brooklyn after World War II to ‘replenish’ the Jewish population after the Holocaust. The new Netflix series, Unorthodox , is set in that Hasidic community.
Jacob Kampus, the Romanian immigrant who introduced the Bucharester Blintz to America.
Jacob J. Kampus, the man credited with bringing the blintz to America was born in 1862 in Bucharest, Romania, and came to NYC in 1892. He was a short, dark haired man, with the stylish handlebar moustache and quite the marketeer. He called himself the famous piemaker from Bucharest and that he had been awarded medals at the Paris, Bucharest, and Antwerp International Exhibitions prior to 1901 for his confections (there is no evidence of these awards.) The blintz that he introduced was actually a rename of his traditional pancake filled, deep fried dessert from Romania, the plancinta. And the placinta actually descends from a thin buckwheat pancake made by the Turks and brought to Romania when they conquered them to became part of the Ottoman Empire. This might be related to the injera, the Ethiopian spongy, pancakey flatbread, although its used to scoop rather than to wrap a filling. The placinta spread from Romania to Ukraine and Moldavia in the 1600s and got a new name, the blintz. So while Kampus was calling them Placinta in 1901, by 1910 he had renamed them the Bucharester Blintz, to appeal to his Polish, Russian (where they were called blini), Ukranian, and Lithuanian Jewish customers to which the blintz was more familiar. At his Dairy Restaurant on 64 Delancey Street Kampus also made kreplach (another filled pastry) and mamaliga (a cornmeal cake sandwiched with quark like cheese). A humorous ad in Der Kibetser reports that doctors and pharmacists were complaining to the paper that they were running too many ads for Kampus’ restaurant. Their complaint was that since running the ads they were losing business because customers of Kampus’ healthy dairy foods were clearing up their stomach ailments. His slogan was, “Eat Blintzes and Become Fat!” – apparently a thing to aspire to at the turn of the last century. His Dairy Restaurant operated 24 years, even three years after his death in 1913, by his wife and son. And now you can get frozen blintzes in a variety of flavors in your kosher breakfast frozen section.
Yonah Schimmel, Romanian/Polish immigrant who introduced the knish to America.
The Knish is said to have been introduced by Yonah Schimmel, another Romanian immigrant who came to NYC as a scribe and rabbit. When no community could support his as a rabbi, he began peddling his wife’s knishes in a pushcart at Coney Island, and then opened in 1910 the store at 137 Houston, which today is the oldest knishery in NYC. The business was taken over in 1910 by Yonah’s cousin Joseph Berger, who married Yonah’s daughter, Rose, and the business passed through the family ever since. Well, at least that’s the official story from the current owner.
But this is where the story gets a bit sketchy – according to the ads in the Yiddish press and city directories. Also there’s a family account from a great granddaughter of Yonah’s younger brother Leo, who ran a dairy restaurant in Brooklyn, called the Famous Sunset Dairy Restaurant from the mid 1930s to 1955. The great grandaughter said the Schilman’s were not from Bucharest, Romania, but Lvov, Poland. But that’s complicated. Lvov is like Alsace Lorraine and has been under several different jurisdictions. It is literally at the intersection of Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and was called Galacia and Austrian Poland. So, it’s possible that the Schilmans were ethnic Romanians living in Polish Lvov, or that Yonah smartly tied himself to the Romanian well known restaurant culture of Bucharest.
Yonah Schimel (with one n) by 1915 had two J. Schimel Bakeries – one at 144 East Houston Street and another at 1363 Fifth Avenue between 112th and 113th streets in the then Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. By 1917, a restaurant is listed at 22 West Houston and the two bakeries are listed one at 44 Avenue B and the Harlem Branch. The Avenue B location now named Yona Schimel Milkhiger Restaurant closed by December 1920 . Then, in 1921 an ad in Der Morgn Zhurnal announces, “Yonah Schimel is again here! The famous restaurant opens a magnificent Milkhiger Restaurant today, Tuesday at 175 Rivington Street, near Attorney St. where there will be served the finest milkhige dishes a la Yonah Schimel with prices as in the year 1910. The ad ends with the warning, “This is the only Yonah Schimel restaurant in all New York. No connection with those other restaurants.” The accusation of restaurants fraudulently operating under Schimel’s name or a slight variation to avoid prosecution, raises the possibility that the Houston Street store and possibly other locations were operated by parties who continued to trade on the well known name, but had no direct business relationship to the Schimels.
The current Knish King is actually a Queen – owner, Ellen Anistrotov is supposed to be a fifth generation descendant of Yonah. Her father Alex Wolfman, former owner, is supposed to be a great nephew of Yonah. The owner before Wolfman, Sheldon Keitz, in 1995 was implicated on a loan sharking scheme. The bakery was one of the locations where the loans, given out at illegally high interest rates were paid. And a 1973 ad of Yonah Schimmels advertised non kosher products on the menu like franks-in-jackets, liver puffs, and mini egg rolls. So, there’s evidence that the current location does not have ties to the original Yonah Schimel. But the legacy story and it’s famous visitors like Babs Streisand, Woody Allen, and both Eleanor and her uncle Theodore Roosevelt – has people turning their eyes to the murky history.
Alex Wolfman, great nephew of Yonah Schimel.
Today Schimmel’s make the traditional potato and kasha (buckwheat) knishes, along with savory flavors – mushroom, sweet potato, potato and spinach, jalapeno and cheese (for the Puerto Rican population), and a pizza knish, and sweet versions – like cherry, apple and blueberry cheese. They say the original Romanian knish is always round, never triangle, thin, light dough, and baked, never fried.
So why is Schimel not given the title of Knish King? Well there was actually a Knish War (like Cincinnati’s Pumpkin Pie Wars) that made national news in 1916 from two knisheries on Rivington Street that earned its winner the title. Max Green, a Yiddish speaking Austrian Jew arrived in NYC in 1899 and was running his knishery and a restaurant by 1916. He took the Romanian knish that Yonah Schimel had introduced and improved it, which became very popular. A rival, United Knish Factory opened across the street and started a price war, dropping their knish from 5 cents to 3 and introducing a cabaret show. Green retaliated with a German band to provide entertainment at his store and then began giving out gift coupons. One customer ate 20 knishes at one sitting to get enough coupons for a pocket knife, and had to be carried out of the store. By 1920 Green had won the knish war, but moved to the area around Union Square to open two branches of the Central Lunch Company. A childrens’ book titled “The Knish War of Rivingston Street” documents this important Jewish food war for children to understand and get a good business lesson.