Fall of a Street Food Icon

I didn’t make it to New York City for the first time until I was 27. Over the next two years or so I got very comfortable with the place, but at first I scarcely knew where to begin. Eating. Sure, pizza. Yeah, bagels. OK, a Nathan’s hot dog from the original stand on Coney Island. But the first thing I remember really wanting to taste was a knish. Then, I didn’t even know what one looked like. I’d only heard about them in Woody Allen movies and Billy Crystal comedy routines. I’d grown up in a big city, so I had a baseline reference for the pizza, bagels and hot dogs. But Chicago, as a city, is essentially knish-less. So when the future Mrs. Pastry took me to my first knish bakery in lower Manhattan, I was excited.

It was mid-morning and the place had just opened. The smell of fresh baked…somethings hung heavy in the air. I picked out a fist-sized potato knish from a heap behind the counter and eagerly forked over my three bucks. The baker plopped it into a paper bag, stuffed in a napkin and a moment later I burst triumphantly out onto the street. I yanked my prize out of the bag, took a big bite and…

Hm. Potato.

And that was about it. I’d bought a baseball-sized wad of barely salted potato (plus a few caramelized onions) wrapped up in a slightly bland, rather pasty crust. It was nothing to write home about, and I confess I didn’t even finish it. My next knish experience took place the next day, I got one — a flat, oblong thing with squared corners — at a hot dog cart on a corner near Times Square. It had even less flavor than the one I’d bought the day before, except it was deep fried. It resembled a McDonald’s fried apple pie, but tasted much, much worse.

For the duration of my visit to New York, and for many visits thereafter, I didn’t notice a knish for sale anywhere. But to be honest, even if I’d seen one I wouldn’t have cared, having been let down two times in a row. It wasn’t until roughly a year later, when I came upon a knish from the famous Knish Nosh bakery that I finally understood what a knish was supposed to be about. Yet even then it was clear to me that the knish was a fallen art form. A once-great archetype that had been abandoned by bakers and eaters alike.

It’s still that way today. I dare say there are legions of people — may of them New Yorkers — who neither know nor care what a knish even tastes like. It’s for this reason that when I make knishes, I don’t adhere to form. I improvise, both with fillings and with wrappings. The way I see it, since the knish has been mostly left for dead, it’s an aesthetic that’s wide open for (re)interpretation. Purists may protest my rather “uptown” version of the ultimate downtown pastry. But eh, so sue me.

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