Theseus’ Knish

A smattering of emails overnight (mostly from Manhattanites) expressing their dismay over what they see as Joe playing fast and loose with the knish. I don’t deny it, and in fact one of the email authors was quite correct when she noted that most of the time I stay pretty true to the original of whatever I’m demonstrating — so what gives? I can’t muster up too much guilt over this, since as I’ve said, the knish is a mostly derelict form of bakery. And that, I think, gives me the right to attempt a little creative — dare I say even radical — revival. This line from reader Chana, however, stuck in my craw:

[This] raises the whole question of just how expansive a recipe (for anything) can be before it loses all connection to its origin and morphs into something else entirely

It’s a very interesting issue, one for which the knish is an almost perfect case study. For indeed a knish can take just about any shape, be filled with just about anything, and cooked by just about any method. So wherein lies the knish’s essential knish-ness? Does a knish remain a knish when you swap out a traditional filling for a more contemporary one? I think it’s safe to say yes. What about when you change the dough in the wrapper? Again, I think, yes. What if you do both at once? Is that allowed? Maybe if you do it in the East Village, but maybe not if you try the same thing in Kentucky.

So we see there are an awful lot of factors that go into the concept of a food, even one as simple as a knish. There’s shape, size, color, flavor, ingredients, cooking method, place, time, the intention of the preparer, perhaps even the identity of the preparer, and I’m sure there are still others. How many of those can you change before a given food is transformed into something else entirely? It’s a question that probably isn’t answerable, but it sure is a fun one to ponder.

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