Although Sammy’s is one of the more conceptually dramatic examples of Jewish culture reincarnated (or mutated, depending on how you look at it) on the current-day Lower East Side, many other establishments operate under similar circumstances, partly because they proudly maintain ‘original’ decor, as at Katz’s Delicatessen, Ratner’s, and Russ & Daughters. Others have undergone more visible changes over the years, whether it is the rubber (instead of wooden) barrels now housing the merchandise at Guss’ Pickles, the non-Jewish management of Kossar’s Bialys, or—for the club crowds—an exclusive, hard-to-find bar in the back of the same Ratner’s, called the Lansky Lounge.
Gertel’s Bake Shop maintains a fairly ‘authentic’ looking, slightly decrepit storefront, but their confections are now also sold all over the city, including a second location on the Upper East Side, and in numerous modern specialty food shops, like Fairway and Zabar’s—not to mention through the website of the Delancey Dessert Company. A website is certainly the most efficient way to reach non- or former-New Yorkers, and there is no time wasted in appealing to this audience, with ‘so, even if you don’t live in New York City, why deprive yourself any longer?’ (1)
Not to be left behind in the specialty food wars, Russ & Daughters is now also online, where it is billed as ‘A New York City Tradition Since 1914.’ The main page also contains an excerpt of an article written about the store in Smithsonian Magazine, in which the current owner of the store, Mark Russ Federman (a third-generation Russ), recounts an anecdote about how his grandfather established the business and brought his three daughters in to work. His nostalgic reminiscence is a perfect foil for reinforcing their ‘proud 85-year family tradition: To delight each and every one of our customers.’ (2)
The question any potential customer of these establishments may wonder now, however, is whether something is lost irretrievably in the act of shopping online for Russ & Daughters’ caviar and smoked fish, or buying Gertel’s rugelach in a pre-packaged bag from Fairway (as I have grown accustomed to doing recently), instead of going directly to the stores themselves. Is the food the same? Is it just as fresh, taste just as good, cost the same, or not? I was not convinced that what I was getting in a pre-sealed bag uptown was identical to the wares in the storefront at Gertel’s, so one day I made a special trip downtown to buy a two-pound box of rugelach and conduct my own comparison. When I brought them home, I held up one boxed chocolate specimen next to one pre-bagged uptown one of the same variety, and couldn’t tell the difference, even after tasting them. But there is a difference, of course—which is why people still go to the Lower East Side, even if they live two hours into New Jersey and need to go completely out of their way, as my friend’s mother does once a month. The difference is, as the comedian at Sammy’s put it, ‘the location.’
Suzanne Wasserman also explores the notion of nostalgia for a time that never was, in her dissertation titled The Good Old Days of Poverty:
Some American Jews without any apparent connection to the East Side link their cultural identities with the community. For example, Paul Cowan in his 1982 autobiography An Orphan in History recalled that every Sunday his father would take the family to the Lower East Side to shop and eat and wander the streets. ‘Back then,’ Cowan recalled, ‘I thought my father liked the neighborhood because it was quaint . . . it never crossed my mind that the place might evoke memories for him.’ But what memories could the East Side evoke for his father who never lived on the East Side and grew up as an affluent German Jew on Chicago’s South Side? The Lower East Side became for Cowan himself the ‘only place in America that seemed to ease my loneliness.’ (3)
The degree to which the Lower East Side has become, in this case, not only a point of much affection but also a focus of emotional need, seems directly proportional to the extent to which the neighborhood has transcended its poverty-stricken, overtly chaotic and conflict-ridden roots to attain a dreamy kind of “good old days” halo.
In the absence of direct roots, American Jews everywhere have come to regard the Lower East Side as an ancestral home, even if their ancestors spent little or no time in the city (as was probably the case with my family). The role which food plays in this construction of cultural identity (I say cultural and not religious because in this case, the foods I’ve discussed are aspects of cultural, or even secular, Jewry) cannot be underestimated. The potential for food to transcend age, geography, and economic status leads it in fact to become one of the dominant elements in defining cultural identity when other elements have become irrelevant or forgotten. Jack Kugelmass cites this phenomenon in his analysis of Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House, but it can be applied almost universally across the spectrum of Jewish foods from the Lower East Side:
To a great degree, the symbolic underpinnings of ethnicity, over time, become increasingly thin, with ever-decreasing knowledge and ability to participate in its rituals. In addition, ethnicity becomes conflated with the past, tradition is seen as ‘something we used to do’ and is encapsulated in a host of cultural productions from restaurants to books to plays to films. This view of ethnicity represents one more facet of the penchant for tourism through which people today come to feel a sense of connection with the world. . . food becomes the most salient of cultural diacritica when traditional language and ritual are remembered ever more indistinctly. (4)
1 Gertel’s Bake Shop website (www.babka.com).
2 Russ & Daughters website (www.russanddaughters.com).
3 Wasserman, Suzanne Rachel. The Good Old Days of Poverty: The Battle Over the Fate of New York City’s Lower East Side During the Depression. Doctoral Dissertation, New York University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. May 1990. p.405.
4 Kugelmass. p.71.
A Guide to Neighborhood Haunts
Gertel’s Bake Shop
53 Hester St., between Essex and Ludlow Sts. (212) 982-3250. Also available online at www.babka.com
Guss’ Lower East Side Pickles
35 Essex St., between Grand and Hester Sts. (212) 254-4477 or (800) 252-4877.
367 Grand St., at Essex St. (212) 473-4810.
Streit Matzoh Company
150 Rivington St., between Clinton and Suffolk Sts. (212) 475-7000. Also available online at www.streitsmatzos.com
205 East Houston St., at Ludlow St. (212) 254-2246.
Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston St., between Allen and Orchard Sts. (212) 475-4880, (800) 787-7229. Also available online at www.russanddaughters.com
Yonah Schimmell’s Knishes
137 East Houston St., between First and Second Aves. (212) 477-2858.
Erika Lesser, an expert on the social history of food in America, works at Slow Food USA