NYC Institutions with Family History (Theirs & Mine)

Russ & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCYonah Schimmel Knishery, NYCYonah Schimmel Knishery, NYC

“I would take the trolley car over the Brooklyn Bridge, get off at Essex Street and visit my grandmother on Eldridge Street.  She would put two pennies in a brown paper bag with a string on it, and drop it out of her window to me from the 3rd floor.   I’d take the bag and walk down the block to get a kasha knish.”

I love hearing stories told by my grandmother of her childhood in Brooklyn and on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  The streets during those years have certainly transformed since then, with the growth of trendy neighborhoods, apartment buildings,  stylish stores, restaurants and bars.  But thankfully a few of the original food shops remain, including two on East Houston Street – Russ & Daughters Appetizers and Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery.  The latter is where my grandmother’s two pennies were always well spent.

Yonah Shimmel Knishery, NYCYonah Shimmel Knishery, NYCYonah Shimmel Knishery, NYCYonah Shimmel Knishery, NYC

What’s a knish, you ask?  A traditional side dish or appetizer on Jewish tables, these hefty round pastries are made with a thin layer of dough encasing a savory filling.  While there may be a larger menu these days, offering knishes made with assorted vegetables or cheese, just stick to the classics – potato or kasha (buckwheat groats), the two original items at Yonah Schimmel’s push cart in 1910. (As for why it’s written as Shimmel out front without the c – they told me it was a mistake and chose to just leave it. !?)  You can sit in the shop next to the dumbwaiter that sends the knishes up from the bakery, and surround yourself with stacks of cardboard boxes and old articles on the wall recounting the place’s history (they celebrated their centennial last year).  Or if you get a few knishes to go, just be warned: you may feel like someone dropped a dumbbell or two into your bag.  This is not a light snack, rather a hearty Eastern European food that Jewish immigrants brought from Russia.  My dad’s advice: wash it down with a Dr. Brown’s cream soda.  Then take a nap.

~

As kids, my sister and I spent New Year’s Eve at my grandparents’ house, wearing silly hats and enjoying every excuse to make noise and throw streamers around in an otherwise off-limits setting.  This year, I may not have donned those colorful paper hats (even though I bet they are still in my grandparents’ attic), but I was there for a classic New Year’s Day brunch.  What did we bring?  The classics that my grandparents, parents and I have been enjoying for weekend breakfasts since as far back as I can remember.  Growing up, my Sunday mornings meant the New York Times on the table (and the Newsday comics for me), bagels, cream cheese and lox.  We looked forward to going to my grandparents’ house for more elaborate tables, with platters of smoked fish, whole whitefish, sable (“poor man’s sturgeon”) and herring.  Sliced tomatoes, cucumber, onion and radish completed the scene.

Russ & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYC

So where did we go to get all this stuff in New York City?  The same address my grandparents went to when they were little, just a few doors down from Yonah Schimmel’s.  Russ & Daughters, but of course.  An absolute mecca for all things smoked, kippered and caviared.  You walk into this always bustling, bright appetizers shop, pass the tall barrels of pickles, take a number and step aside in the narrow space to let someone either in or out.  Even if the wait is long, you’ll have enough to look at in the many tempting cases that it will go by fast, too fast.  A whole case for cream cheese varieties and other spreads; another for salmon – be it cold-smoked, hot-smoked, cured (lox) or kippered (baked, my favorite !); herring (schmaltz fillets, roll mops, pickled herring with cream sauce and pickled onions, or even in curry sauce); and yet another case of salads and other appetizers like chopped liver, gefilte fish, blintzes and potato latkes.  Not only is the quality unparalleled, but best of all, the team behind the counter is friendly and patient, willing to answer your 101 questions, and even give you a taste or two.  (I doubt of the golden Osetra malossol caviar though.)

Russ & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYC

You didn’t think I was going to forget dessert, did you?  There’s usually a babka or Hungarian loaf on our family table, of which my mother and I invariably pick off the top, the best part (think crumbs and chocolate).  Russ & Daughters has those too.  And an entire display of dried fruit and nuts as well.  And seltzer bottles to whip up New York Egg Creams, should the craving hit (made with the one and only Fox’s u-bet chocolate syrup of course).  They even have twists.  Twists?

Never has anyone stepped foot in my grandparents’ house without leaving with a twist from the freezer – house rules.  By twist, I mean chewy vanilla marshmallow dipped in dark chocolate.  (A blue Joyva box comes to mind.)  I could only smile when I saw them on display in front of the jelly rings (below left), but knew I didn’t need to buy any, as my grandparents’ freezer miraculously never runs out.  And then there’s halvah, oooh halvah (or spelled halva and even halavah as seen below right).  A beige colored confection, and dense, calorie bomb made of ground sesame seeds, this is another classic sweet on our holiday tables, especially Passover, when leavened goods are forbidden.

Russ & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYCRuss & Daughters, NYC

Incredibly distracted by the person slicing a huge block of halvah in the corner, I lost track of time – and my parents.  My mother was in a conversation with a woman the age of her own mother, who goes to Russ & Daughters every day, and who was saying if only she got a penny for every time she heard people coming in and saying “my grandparents used to come here…”   She also started to speak to me in Yiddish once she learned I live in Zürich. (Not that I understood, nor do people speak Yiddish here.)

My father, as usual, was busy kibitzing, this time with the young lady behind the counter. When I joined him, I was introduced to Niki – and you would have thought she and my dad had known each other for years. Extremely friendly, her warm smile naturally made you feel that way. She told me it was her great grandfather, Joel Russ, who started it all, back in 1914. But truth be told, it was his sister Hannah who emigrated to New York City first and sent for her little brother to help support the family. Good thing she did. And so, “from pushcart to posh” it went. That happens to be the working title of third generation Marc Russ Federman’s memoir to be. Fourth generation and simply beaming with pride about her family history, Niki was even interested in our family history too. As if we were sitting together, two friends, over bagels and appetizers, no one else in line behind us, nor four deep at the counter, she wanted to hear all about what my grandparents liked to eat at Russ & Daughters and what they used to get for their parents…

When we left, she told us to say hello to my grandparents for her. And we did.

~

Russ & Daughters, since 1914
179 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002
+1.212.475.4880

http://www.russanddaughters.com/

http://blog.russanddaughters.com/

(you can spend hours on their excellent website, learning about all the different products and fish, their family history and more)

Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, since 1910
137 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002
+1.212.477.2858

http://knishery.com/

16 Responses to “NYC Institutions with Family History (Theirs & Mine)”

  1. Julia @ Mélanger says:

    What a wonderful trip down memory lane. It is so heartening that even though areas like the lower east side have gentrified within an inch of its life, that old haunts as you have shared with us here still remain. Would be so satisfying.

    It is just gone 8am here in Brisbane, and the thought of all that smoked fish is getting me hungry (my mother has a ‘thing’ for rollmops!). Oh, and perhaps a slice of that babka, too? I was also checking out the menu board, and would probably grab some Baltic rye for the boy, of course! Hmmmmm, what else on my breakfast plate? Sure, pass me a knish or two. Potato, of course. I remember having these in Boston, quite a bit. Yes, they were pretty heavy, but I don’t think as large as these beauties in your photos!

    Next time I’m in NYC, I’m checking out these food stores. I knew of Russ & Daughters, but not Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery. What a great name!! :)

  2. alady'slife says:

    We had St Lawrence street in Montreal which had the best knishes in town as well as schmaltz herring . I have never tasted herring as good as that .
    And the bagels were to die for as well.
    Now I don’t know where we would get anything that good anymore.

  3. Sam sidney says:

    Well done Kerr! You one again have me hungry now matter what time or place. Hmm? I Wish I had a supply of twists in my freezer downstairs. I love the photos too. This post not only reminds me of my family’s history on the lower east side but ours as well! I remember heading down there with you gus’s pickles…. Economy candy… And all the street vendors where you would buy bulk dried fruits and nuts.

    I love reading about the many family traditions you have had. It is so nice to see how they are still going on and how much they have shaped your passions for food and travel!

    Great post…. One of my favorites. Ok back to bed. I think I’ll be dreaming about a bagel with Los and cream cheese please!

    Xo

  4. Katrin says:

    “A thin layer of dough encasing a savory filling”: right up my alley :-) But oh why do I read your blog before breakfast? A bagel from Starbucks down the street is NOT the same thing, although I do have a smoked salmon in the freezer from my last trip to Vancouver. Hmmmm.

    Thanks for a great post!

  5. Kerrin says:

    Julia, reading your comment, you are now making *me* hungry ! I wonder where you got your knishes in Boston, do you remember ? Just curious. Love the sound of your breakfast plate in Brisbane. And I certainly can’t wait to share a breakfast plate from Russ & Daughters with you on your trip to NYC. One day….! =)

    alady’slife, I remember checking out Montreal’s famous bagels (at St Viateur I think) and Schwartz’s Deli too when I was there years ago. The bagels were really good, sweeter and smaller if I remember correctly – they are quite different from New York bagels. Hope to get back to Montreal one day… have to refresh my memory. ;)

    Sam, hope you had delicious dreams last night of bagels and lox ! ;) Can you get good bagels and food like this in Charleston, I wonder… ?? You should totally stock your freezer with twists and tell your parents to bring you bagels – the best are from Great Neck ! Thanks for the fabulous comment – you are part of my family history.

    Katrin, you have smoked salmon in your freezer from Vancouver… And I have bagels in my freezer from our favorite shop (The Bagel Hut) right down the street from my grandparents’ house on Long Island. Guess what… looks like you and I are combining forces for breakfast this weekend ! Just need to get some cream cheese, and we’re set. :)

  6. valentina says:

    wow, how fabulous! Places like these one you describe here ground us. At least that’s how it works for me. We live in a world where depending where you live shops open and close at such fast speed.Depending on how young you are and your upbringing, you might not have much idea of tradition and its importance. There are so many new things to me in your text. I loved the idea of knish. Anything breadlike with a savory feeling makes me weak at the knees. The twist I know is the one we buy in the shops here in the UK.Not the same one. So many varieties of cream cheese. I have already had bakka. oh…so delicious!!! My grandmother lived in a small town in northeast Brazil and I have lovely memories of holidays spent there. The edible treats bought at the corner shop which was run by the same people for ages. Up to this day i am madly in love with Maria biscuits because that’s what I would get for breakfast with my hot milk.

  7. Emma says:

    Oooh lox, and pickled herring too! So good! I remember always fighting the pickled herring when I was little, as it just looked so revolting to me. But I’ve embraced it full force, and life is much better with a side of p.h. I now enjoy introducing it to people who haven’t had it before – and who usually react as I used to!

    Great memories in this post. And it seems that it’s people like Niki who make these places so memorable, and so pleasant to shop at. They make it more than that though; it’s obviously been a destination for your family for many many years. Lovely.

  8. Bethany (Dirty Kitchen Secrets) says:

    So loved reading this K! Your grandmother’s memory of dropping money reminds me of a memory I have of my grandmother dropping her basket over the balcony with money for the street vendor to fill it up with veg etc. I can’t wait to visit when i’m next in NYC. Hopefully it will happen that we’re both there at the same time, which would be a riot!!

    P.S- I’ll take your dad’s advice too and wash it down with Dr. Brown cream soda. Ahem! So when are we going exactly?!

  9. Kerrin says:

    valentina, you are so right, and especially in New York City, places are constantly opening and closing. So it is so amazing to have these landmarks that play a role in so many people’s family traditions – amazing to think about our parents, grandparents and even great grandparents going there ! Thanks for sharing your story, and you know that I am now curious what Maria biscuits are, of course… Do tell ! :)

    Emma, I suppose the sound of pickled herring isn’t the most tempting of foods, but fun if you can get your friends to try it now – and like it too ! Glad you enjoyed the post, and I agree – having positive, memorable interactions with people who work at the shops you go to just make the experience so much richer.

    B, we have a few trips to do together… Lebanon, Zürich and NYC too ! Yes, we must make that happen. And I’ll treat you to a Dr. Brown’s cream soda there — and I told my dad next time I’m in, I’ll treat *him* to an egg cream ! ;) Drinks on me, haha !

  10. valentina says:

    Dear Kerrin, biscoito Maria ( ou bolhacha Maria aonde cresci) is a biscuit made with wheat flour, sugar, vegetable oil and vanilla essence. It is very similar to what in the UK is called Rich Tea. The only difference being the vanilla essence, It is a very simple biscuit, round and the name Maria written on it – http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_oaCZXCZDNC8/S7FDiHcDcGI/AAAAAAAAAYk/fIiVNGk9TgQ/s1600/bolacha+maria.jpg. I found it in Spain as well. It made my heart beat faster. to me it brings all the lovely breakfast mornings together.

  11. mom says:

    This post of yours took my breath away. The memories that I have being with my parents, grandparents and you of course always. Wandering the streets of the lower eastside, reliving the memories of Sunday morning brunch, fighting for the perfect bagel and ending with the most frozen twists! How wonderful to share all these memories with your readers. You have made me hungry for all the kasha, smoked salmon and babka!!!! I’m ready…..

  12. Wendy says:

    Dear Kerrin, I cannot believe my luck! Not only will I be visiting with you (my buddy Jane in Zurich has contacted you about a walkabout while I am visiting!!) soon BUT I am taking my daughter to NYC and Boston looking at colleges!! We are arriving in NYC and will be wandering around EATING. Love your food recommendations! Do you have a favorite place to stay (we were could stay!! Obviously not with Grandma!!) See you soon!
    Wendy

  13. Kerrin says:

    valentina, obrigada ! Thanks for sharing that image. I will definitely show it to Olivier and see if it brings back childhood memories for him too, as he grew up in São Paulo…

    mom, all I can say to you is – thank YOU !!! And until I come in to NY again, just keep eating all that good stuff for me, please.

    Wendy, yes how fabulous ! Looking forward to meeting you all later this month, will be so fun for sure. And lots of good luck to (you and) your daughter for the college application process ! Enjoy all the good eats, those cities are full of them. Unfortunately I don’t really know hotels, as I always stay with my family. But lots of sweet NYC addresses on the blog here, hope you and your daughter enjoy !

  14. jen laceda says:

    Awwww…

    I’ve never been to both places, even though I always see them when I was living in the LES way back when. I’ve not had knishes, too. So, it’s about time I try them. Gotta look for a knish place here in Toronto…but I bet it won’t have as much history as Yonah Schimmel’s! My sis-in-law is Jewish, so I’m hoping she knows some knish shops here in Toronto!

  15. Meister @ The Nervous Cook says:

    I adore this post — it reminds me of the many reasons I fall back in love with New York all the time, and how blessed I am to live in a city that has so many memories and so much history for people from all over the world.

    Thank you for my daily reminder to count my blessings as a contented Gothamite!

  16. Kerrin says:

    jen, so tell me, have you found a knish place in Toronto yet ? Here are a few links that will definitely help you (and your sister-in-law) satisfy that craving. Tons of other knish lovers in Toronto, apparently !
    – Chowhound discussion: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/554467
    – Yelp: http://www.yelp.ca/topic/toronto-knish-me
    – Foodspotting: http://www.foodspotting.com/places/11801-caplansky-s-deli-toronto

    Meister, thank you so much. And you’re very welcome. You are certainly lucky, Gothamite ! ;) Fantastic to hear how appreciative of the city you are – and all it has to offer. Which is a whole LOT ! Enjoy a slice of the Big Apple for me, please !

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