As the debate in this nation over immigration drags on, just as it has for over 200 years, it is incredible to me how quick we are to forget that “American culture” doesn’t even exist without the contributions of immigrants to our beloved country. Consider all of the things that we think of as American, and you’ll see that they really only have one thing in common, they were brought here by an immigrant group or an individual from another land. Pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, beer, atomic bombs, and pretty much every edible that you can stick in your mouth can trace its genesis to someplace else. The only question an immigrant to our country should be required to answer when they seek to enter our country is, “What do you got to eat?”
(Editor’s note – You will notice that the sign above the store spells the name of the bakery as such: Shimmel. However, the website, and the sign on the window of the store spells it Schimmel. In the interest of standardization, from this point forward, I will spell it Schimmel. Enjoy.)
Here in the Capital Region, the first ethnic foods to arrive would have been courtesy of the Dutch. Dutch settlers first arrived here in what they would call Fort Orange in 1615. These were mostly fur traders, so you know they had a hardy appetite. I can’t say for certain whether these early inhabitants were gorging themselves on Pofferjes, a fluffy pancake, or Bitterballen (Which sounds like the type of basketball the Knicks play.) a crunchy, golden brown ball of beef, broth, flour, butter, and breadcrumbs. What I am sure of is that the Native Americans who they encountered probably took one look at what they were ingesting, and said, “Ewwww!” Let’s face it, new food from unfamiliar ethnic groups is often met at first with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, most chow that emanates from outside the United States, usually breaks through with the local populace, and pretty soon what used to raise eyebrows here in the United States becomes synonymous with American cuisine.
In fact, it is most fortunate that our land has become such a destination for so many people around the world, as well as their foods. Imagine if as some would seem to prefer, the only culture that ever arrived here was that of the Northern European, particularly those from the British Isles. Oh sure the beer would be awesome, but the culinary landscape would be exceedingly bleak. Outside of fish and chips, the British aren’t exactly known for their cuisine. Kidney pie isn’t even as good as it sounds, and it sounds awful. (It sounds like something Jack the Ripper would make out of one of his victims.)
For decades, the only places one could reliably find quality food produced by the hands of the immigrant was in the big cities, particularly those located along the eastern seaboard. Boston, Philadelphia, and of course New York City became the destination of choice (I’m not sure how much of a choice they had.) for the vast majority of those arriving in the “New World” seeking opportunity. Slowly but surely, thanks to mitigating factors such as job opportunities, cost of living, weather, and taxes, European immigrants to this country, and their kin have spread out throughout this nation, and now one can get quality Italian, German, Greek, and many other ethnic delicacies all over these United States. Even Jewish deli foods can be found in many places that used to seem like unlikely destinations for the mighty pastrami sandwich, and while one might find the occasional square potato knish in these Jewish style delis, the idea of an actual “Knishery,” has eluded the rest of the nation culturally. This my friends, is a problem without a name. Although if I were to try to name it, I guess I would call it, “Knish-less.”
Where can one go to find all that they can “knish” for? Well, the best and closest place to the Capital Region is the one and only Yonah Schimmel, the “Knishery” located down in the Bowery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Walking into Yonah Schimmel is like stepping back in time. The place first opened back in 1910. Think of it, the Titanic hadn’t even been launched, William Howard Taft had barely had his special bathtub built in the White House so he and his 350 lb frame could bathe in comfort, the Romanov’s looked like they might rule Russia forever, and Babe Ruth was still just another orphan. All of those items have come and gone, and still, Yonah Schimmel keeps baking their special brand of knish from the heart of what was once the epicenter of Jewish culture in New York City.
Yonah Schimmel calls itself a “Knish Bakery,” and baking is what they do. Unlike the more familiar and pedestrian square potato knish, available in many places all over these United States, (Well, at least in some metropolitan areas.) Yonah Schimmel only bakes the round kind, with the very light and delicate shell. The inside is filled to the brim with potato or whatever stuffing one desires, as long as it’s one of the kind that they make. (In other words, don’t ask for a sausage and cheese knish when you walk in.)
While everybody is familiar with the concept of the potato knish, round or square, many non-Jews, as well as those who dwell north of Rockland County, are far less accustomed to biting into a round knish heavily laden with a substance known as kasha. Kasha for those of you who are not in the know, is a barley/wheat type of grain, that is neither for the genteel, or for that matter, quite possibly, the gentile. Kasha contains a certain heft to it that has been known to weigh one down, and bring many an alleged hearty partaker to their knees. Both potato and kasha knishes can be eaten with mustard, but only good Jewish deli mustard. Take that French’s yellow stuff, and save it for the ballpark.
I’m not against knish innovations per se’, but I do worry about even the ultimate in old-school knisheries like Yonah Schimmel getting to “wild and crazy” in their never ending search for the ultimate knish experience. Some of their ventures seem headier than others. In addition to the standards, potato and kasha knishes, Yonah Schimmel also features…
- Broccoli Knish – My concern here is that they are trying to make some sort of healthy eating statement, and that’s not who they should be catering to. Nobody was eating broccoli in the shtetl.
- Spinach Knish – Spinach for some reason, while equally healthy in comparing it to broccoli, seems to work better in the knish. Spinach is one of those vegetables that works well in a lot of ethnic foods, so if Popeye was Jewish, I think he’d be fine with a spinach knish.
- Red Cabbage Knish – I don’t like cabbage perogies, and I certain don’t want it, red or otherwise in my knish.
- Sweet Potato Knish – This is crazy. I’m pretty sure this is how Communism starts. I could see eating a sweet potato pierogi, but not in a knish.
- Mixed Vegetable Knish – This is garbage, save it for the gluten free knish eaters.
- Mushroom Knish – I acknowledge how much flavor mushrooms bring to the foods they are mixed with, but I hate the texture, and the thought of biting into a knish with a stack of ‘shrooms seems like the type of things horror movies are made of.
If you’ve had enough of the savory at Yonah Schimmel, why not stay for a little desert to cleanse your palette? Knishes for desert? Oh yeah.
- Apple Cheese – Imagine a danish, but in a knish
- Cherry Cheese – How good are these sweet knishes? My father used to double-park on Houston Street down on the Bowery when it was at its most “bummiest,” leave my mother and his children in the car to fend for themselves, while he went in and got himself a supply of these delicacies. He would always eat one piping hot, and burn his mouth on the cherries, but he didn’t care.
- Blueberry Cheese – I’ve never tried this one, but I’m imagining it’s like the cherry cheese one, but blueberry, and how bad can that be?
- Chocolate Cheese – This might be too delightful as my nephew would say. It just may not be necessary.
- Plain Cheese – For those who don’t like to mix fruit with their cheese.
You may be wondering what kind of cheese they use at Yonah Schimmel to make their dessert knishes. Well, if I were to give an educated guess, it would be farmer cheese, which comes from pressed cottage cheese, and is often found in pierogis and blintzes. If you’re not feeling “knishy,” you can instead imbibe in a potato latke, (Pancake) noodle kugel, or even borscht, beet soup for you novices. As for what you can drink to wash down your knish experience, while you can order up a cherry-lime rickey, the drink of the stars is the original New York City drink, better known as the egg cream. The black and white as it is also sometimes referred to is literally the taste of the city, and Yonah Schimmel makes it as good as anybody.
I’m certainly not holding my breath in anticipation of the Capital Region opening a knishery any time soon. We don’t even have a kosher deli. We have a “kosher-style” deli in Schenectady called Gershon’s, which does serve up Jewish style deli food, and mimics some of the more gluttonous attributes of the Jewish deli, and the food is good, but it doesn’t quite capture the essence of the kosher deli. It’s almost as if one were to go to let’s say Testo’s in Troy, and while enjoying and observing all of the delectable old school Italian food, noticed that on the menu they offered up pasta with ketchup. Yes I know you don’t have to order it, and it doesn’t mean the other food isn’t legitimately good, but it strikes at the experience in a way that would cause the whole thing to feel delegitimized.
‘m not anti-progress as a rule, but I do tip my hat to those establishments that can maintain their traditions and keep their institutions thriving. A step into Yonah Schimmel is a step into the past. It is a feeling of what the sights and smells of what was once a thriving immigrant community was like, brought back through the magic of the knish. How many who trod before us made their way through the Bowery, and stepped on to Houston street so they could lose themselves in the taste of a kasha knish, or the cherry cheese kind? Nothing says freedom like a nosh on a knish.