WALTHAM — To Laura Silver, a knish is not just a knish. Silver, the world’s leading knish expert (self-proclaimed, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else possessing greater expertise), has spent years researching the iconic stuffed savory pastry closely associated with Jewish cuisine. She’s written a book on the topic; she has traveled across the country in search of the ideal knish; she’s even gone so far as to traipse around Manhattan’s Lower East Side dressed in a rubbery yellow knish costume.
So when the New York resident made a recent appearance at Gordon’s Fine Wines in Waltham, leading an evening of “Knishes, Cocktails, and Conversation” sponsored by the New Center Now, a large and attentive crowd turned out, eager to learn the story behind the knish and, perhaps, to try their hand at rolling their own.
Silver’s own interest in knishes is highly personal. “There was a knish shop in Brooklyn where my parents had gone, and my grandparents before them,” Silver recounts on the phone before the event. “When my grandma died, it became a proxy or a portal to her. And when it closed, I said, Oh no, I’ve lost my connection to that place and knishes and grandma.”
That set Silver on a path of discovery. The knish, she learned, was not just a beloved snack but an engine of economic success for early Jewish immigrants to the United States. Knish shops, now nearly extinct, were a unique “link to entrepreneurship,” says Silver. “There’s no such thing as a kugel shop or a matzo ball shop. A knish shop helped people get a leg up and establish themselves in this country.” A portable snack, knishes — handheld pastries with a variety of fillings, most commonly potato, but potentially ranging from kasha to meat to mushroom to cheese — lent themselves to simple takeaway shops or carts. “Boys would go every day after school, like a pizza shop,” says Silver. But as urban immigrant communities assimilated and moved to the suburbs, knish shops disappeared.
The shop her family had patronized was Mrs. Stahl’s. Through a combination of dogged research and serendipity, Silver tracked down Mrs. Stahl’s granddaughters, now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and learned their grandmother’s recipe, which she shares in her book, “Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food.” Her research was supported in part by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.
At the Waltham event, attendees snack on a variety of knishes prepared by Inna’s Kitchen, in Newton, and Michael’s Deli, in Brookline. “I have rarely been in the presence of such a knish cornucopia,” remarks Silver, who is wearing an apron that reads, “World’s Leading Knish Expert.”
Bowls of oil and flour and balls of dough, prepared ahead of time, are handed out to participants, who are about to re-create a version of Mrs. Stahl’s knishes. There are several crucial steps to knish-making, explains the author. “Roll out the dough paper thin,” she instructs. “You want to be able to read a newspaper through it, or at least a newspaper with large print.” Gamely, the rolling begins, though not all students are able to achieve the ideal paper-thin rectangle. “It looks a bit like the continent of Africa,” says attendee Betzalel Reich of his slightly lopsided attempt.
A potato filling has also been prepared in advance. “The filling looks a bit like a latke, so that’s seasonally appropriate,” Silver remarks. The rolling, filling, forming, and twisting continues until everyone has come up with a fairly credible-looking knish. The student knishes now in the oven, Silver gives a digressive but highly entertaining presentation on the little pastries, covering her family roots from Knyszyn (pronounced “knishen”), Poland, to the Lower East Side to St. Paul. The audience groans audibly when she shows a present-day picture of Mrs. Stahl’s, now a Subway sandwich shop.
Silver is undaunted by that, or by other knish setbacks, such as the Gabila’s Knishes fire of 2013, which led to a nationwide shortage. “The knish is a survivor,” she says.
And its tenacity, she suggests, may have little to do with the snack itself. “My main interest in the knish is that it’s a repository of stories,” says Silver.
“My book is about knishes. But it’s also about heroes and ancestors and stories.”Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.