Knish Know-It-All

April 18, 2012 | Brooklyn College

Brooklyn, N.Y.—Square or round, plain or stuffed with different fillings, served with or without mustard, the humble knish has been intriguing Laura Silver for years. Silver, who earned an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1998, recently brought her interest in the potato pocket to campus when she hosted a talk about the history of the knish and her personal connections to the food. “Knish Parmigiana: Jews, Italians, and an Appetite for Survival” was a preshow event for the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts’ presentation of Steve Solomon‘s off-Broadway comedy My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy.

When Leah Keith, the center’s special events associate, noticed that Silver was giving a talk at the Brooklyn Historical Society, she invited her to be part of the program. “I thought her content gets to the core of the show — culture and food — and that it would be something the audience would like,” she said. 

As attendees entered the Woody Tanger Auditorium, they were greeted by the song “That’s Amore” and a slide that read, “Knish History 101 With a Touch of Parmigiana.”

Silver’s obsession with the knish was sparked by the closing of Mrs. Stahl’s Brighton Beach Knishery that she and her family frequented. “We would travel an hour from Queens to Brooklyn for these knishes. The trip was synonymous with my grandmother; it was our ritual. I didn’t really appreciate it until it was gone,” she explained. The store closed in 2005, and a SUBWAY restaurant now stands in its place, leaving Silver to wonder, “Who moved my knish?”

After displaying a black and white photo of Mrs. Stahl’s from the 1980s, Silver began to discuss knish differences, where Mrs. Stahl’s recipe ended up, knish origins in Coney Island, the lack of knishes in Israel, and the knish’s appearance in the entertainment industry, from a knish addiction in Welcome Back, Kotter to a knish-pizza stand in The Golden Girls. She also shared her personal relationship with the snack food, including how she dressed in a foam knish suit to lead the Knish Alley Revival, and the knish-making parties she holds in her house.

Silver then engaged the audience in  “Oy Vey Mamma Mia, The Original Jewish-Italian Food Quiz,” an activity in which they had five minutes to answer a series of questions, followed by a quick review. She ended the talk by reading a memory supplied by two audience members who had bonded over having gone to the same knish shop as kids. All the attendees were then given a rectangular golden “Certificate of Knishitude” magnet with the name of Silver’s website, Knish.me.

Silver is currently working on a book titled The Book of Knish: Loss, Longing, and the Hunt for a Humble Hunk of Dough, which is due out in 2013, as well as a documentary about the history of the knish.