It's weird really, 'cause nobody talks much about knishes anymore. What I mean is that there was a time in my life, and in the life of the people I was around at that time in my life, when knishes were a part of it. By a part of it, I don't mean that my Austro-Hungarian-Cossack grandmother was in the kitchen making them...though she did make a mean latke. No; what I mean is that in the neighborhoods where I grew up - in Brooklyn, in Queens and on Long Island, there were lots of delis - and the delis always had griddles where the knishes were being kept warm...next to the hot dogs. So did Nathan's, Roosevelt Raceway and places like that. They were a staple. When you went for a hot dog, you most of the time got a hot dog...and, a knish.
Don't get me wrong, they haven't gone away. It's just that they're not a weekly or monthly ritual like they were at some other point in my (and others) lives. And if you moved away from New York, you'll never find a good knish - maybe by mail order. I lived in California for a long time; the only good knishes I had were when I would come back for a visit.
Knishes can be still found on lots of street food carts around the city. Gabila's is a major brand. Katz's still has them, in front, on the griddle, next to the dogs. And they're good...well, they're OK. Split, with mustard, they go nicely with a Katz's dog - and it'll probably cost you $10 for the 2. Zabar's, Murray's and 2nd Ave. Deli all make respectable knishes. Knish Knosh in Rego Park is some people's favorite. The list goes on.
What the hell is a knish? You know, I've been asked that a lot of times, and I don't know if I've ever just been able to describe what it is without a lot of sorta like this, sorta like thats. But a couple of web sites and a couple of books later, here's what I found on Jewish recipes.com:
Knish is an eastern-European Jewish or Yiddish snack food. It is a dumpling covered with a dough shell that is either baked or fried. In the most traditional version, the dumpling is made entirely of mashed potato.
The wiki goes even further, pointing out that there are similar, yet cultural differences to:
the British pasty, the Scottish Bridie, the Jamaican patty, the Spanish and Latin American empanada the Portuguese rissole, the Italian calzone, the South Asian samosa, the Russian pirozhki and the Middle Eastern fatayer....
But, I'll still take my NY knish, thank you. And since we live on the lower east side, which at one time might've been the knishery of the world, it's still pretty darn easy for me to get a good one at Yonah Schimmel's. Yonah Schimmel's has been baking ("Always baked, never fried," as the sign says) knishes on the lower east side since 1910, which coincidentally is the last time the windows were cleaned. But it makes no difference for a knish like this.
So , the next time you're strolling along East Houston St. as I was the other day with some old friends, make a bit of a bit of a detour into Schimmel's. There's "table service," or just do what we did and stand at the little counter, next to a couple of squeeze bottles of mustard. Order a potato (on the right) and maybe a kasha (there are other, more eclectic varieties, but I find those to be more like blueberry bagels - criminal) along with a couple of Dr. Brown's and think about why you let knishes slip away.