WORLD FOOD – Nostalgia and Invented Tradition – Part One

13 Jun 2001

There’s an old joke about the history of the Jews in New York that says the first generation settled in Manhattan, the second generation moved to the boroughs, the third generation moved to Long Island and Westchester County, and the fourth generation is desperately trying to get an apartment back in Manhattan (1)

The history of the Jews of provides a fascinating example of how an immigrant community brought its Old World food ways to a new country and transformed them into a completely new and separately identified branch of Jewish cooking—one that has also infiltrated the American table in many forms. The most commonly cited examples of Jewish American foods which made this transition/assimilation include the bagel (with a requisite schmear, and possibly some smoked fish as well), the pastrami sandwich, sour pickles and hot dogs. What all these foods also have in common is a strong identification with New York City. The New York hot dog, the New York bagel and New York deli sandwich can be traced back to the heyday of the Jewish community on the Lower East Side, roughly spanning 1870 to 1933.

Looking more closely at the origin of these foods, it becomes apparent that the link between what Jews ate then and what Jews (and non-Jews) eat now is not a simple one. Going food shopping on the Lower East Side in the year 2001 is a wholly different experience from making the same trip a hundred years earlier. The act of buying pickled cucumbers at Guss’s Pickles on Essex St., or eating a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s on Houston, is meant to be a re-enactment, but is also a gesture of nostalgia – and a contemporary transaction as well.

1. ‘The Magic Bagel’

What happens, however, when the underlying assumption of authenticity which informs the purpose and pleasure of these food experiences is called into question? In his essay, ‘The Magic Bagel’, Calvin Trillin recounts his search for a pumpernickel bagel that he used to enjoy with his daughters, when they were growing up:

‘Let’s get this straight, Abigail,’ I said, ‘If I can find those gnarly little dark pumpernickel bagels that we used to get at Tanenbaum’s, you’ll move back to New York. Right?’

‘Absolutely,’ Abigail said.

When I reported that exchange to Alice [Trillin’s wife], she said that Abigail was speaking ironically. I found it difficult to believe that anybody could be ironic about those bagels. They were almost black. Misshapen. Oniony. Abigail adored them. Both of my daughters have always taken bagels seriously. (2)

Trillin and daughters’ serious attitude toward this mythical bagel is a crucial part of why the writer is so shocked to uncover some of the history behind it:

In the old days, there was a sharp split between bagel bakeries and bread bakeries. The bagel bakers had their own local, No. 338. They didn’t bake bread and bread bakers didn’t make bagels. Originally, of course, bagels were made only with white flour. But some bread bakers who trafficked in pumpernickel would twist some bread dough into bagel shapes and bake them. By not going through the intermediate boiling that is part of the process of making an authentic bagel, they stayed out of another local’s jurisdiction . . . [in fact] the object of Abigail’s adoration was . . . not boiled. This was hard news to take. It sounded perilously close to saying that the bagel we were searching for was just round bread. But what bread! (3)

What is one to think upon such a discovery? Is this a betrayal, a disillusionment with one’s ancestral past? Or can the experience that was had still stand on its own, valid in its own right, based on a different model of tradition–an invented tradition? Trillin is consoled by the daughter of another non-boiled-bagel maker:

She’d told me that for years her late father offered pumpernickel bagels that were baked without being boiled first. ‘Then they weren’t real bagels?’ I’d said.

‘If my daddy called them bagels they were bagels,’ Mrs. Farkas said.

I had recognized her as a person of character the moment she’d told me that whatever her daddy said was a bagel was a bagel (4)

Therefore, what Trillin is left with is the understanding that while what he and his daughter enjoyed so many years ago was not an authentic bagel according to the definition laid down by the bagel-making union of the time, it was still indeed called a bagel by the person who made it and by the people who ate it. If it looked like a bagel and tasted like a bagel . . .

The implications of this for the rest of Lower East Side food culture, and the supposed authentic tradition of Jewish foods that are still sold in stores today, are not clear. Where does one draw the line? Is it now necessary to lobby for a ‘denomination of protected origin’ stamp for bagels and other ethnic foods, so that their true flavors are not lost in the industrial blanding of American foods? But what if the agreed-upon definition of a bagel is then limited to the Lower East Side? What of Mrs. Farkas and other bagel makers who come from Williamsburg, or even farther away?

2. ‘Escargots avec schmaltz’(5)

A gorilla walked into Goldman’s delicatessen and ordered a pastrami sandwich on pumpernickel with a piece of pickle on the side—to go.

‘That’ll be two dollars,’ said Goldman, handing the ape the sandwich. ‘And I must say, I never expected to see a gorilla in my store!’

‘At two dollars for a pastrami sandwich,’ snapped the gorilla, ‘you never will again!’ (6)

In another part of the Lower East Side, the rubric of authenticity is not questioned— rather, it is turned completely on its head. Sammy’s Romanian Steak House, located on Chrystie Street near Delancey, is a sort of shrine to all things schmaltz (Yiddish for ‘rendered chicken fat’) and ‘kosher-style,’ all interpreted in a loosely fictional, parodic fashion. Usage of the word schmaltz, although originally a food term, now reflects its show-business usage of the early twentieth century (when it came to mean corny, maudlin and sentimental (7) – ‘lay it on thick’), and refers more to the Yiddish jokes that the comedian/singer at Sammy’s makes than to the pitcher of liquid chicken fat on every table, drizzled liberally on every dish – from chopped liver to steak – by pushy waiters at every opportunity (although the schmaltz is certainly part of the shtick!).

Sammy’s provides a nostalgic experience, but it is a nostalgia for something that never existed—not on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, in any case. The current management dates only to 1975, the menu is ‘kosher-style’ because some of the cuts of meat are trayf,(8) there is of course no Sammy, and the bill usually comes to at least $50 per person—in effect, an expensive restaurant selling a cultural experience supposedly based on a neighborhood that once contained the most notorious slums of New York City. As the resident comedian quips:

‘I just figured out why we do so well here. It’s not the food. It’s not the music. It’s the location.’ (9)

Sammy’s gives patrons the opportunity to experience the Lower East Side as a kind of condensed, theatrical/historical/ancestral enactment. The atmosphere is a perfect example of what Kugelmass characterizes as a tendency among Lower East Side Jewish restaurants to ‘freeze’ their decors, in order to achieve a look of historical authenticity that appeals to patrons:

Hyper-conscious of their mission vis-à-vis tradition, they have become virtual parodies of a tradition they do not know. And if they are about nostalgia, it is, as Susan Stewart writes, ‘a sadness without an object . . . the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative.’ Sammy’s is a fabricated universe . . . and what it has to offer is a past that no one ever had but many people think is theirs. (10)


1)Kayton, Bruce. Radical Walking Tours of New York City. Seven Stories Press, New York, 1999. p.124.

2) Trillin, Calvin. ‘The Magic Bagel’ The New Yorker, March 27, 2000. p.53

3) Ibid. p.87-8

4) Ibid. p.88-9.

5) Kugelmass, Jack. ‘Green Bagels: An Essay on Food, Nostalgia, and the Carnivalesque.’ YIVO Annual. Northwestern University Press and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Evanston, Illinois. Volume 19, 1990. p.64.

6) Spalding, Henry D. Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, From Biblical Times to the Modern Age. Jonathan David Publishers, New York, 1969. p.134-5.

7) Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1968. p.351.

8) ‘Any food which is not kosher.’ Ibid. p.406.

9) Kugelmass. p.63.

10) Ibid. p.73-74.

Erika Lesser, an expert on the social history of food in America, works at Slow Food USA.

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