Bagels, Brisket, and Brined Cucumbers: The Jewish American Culinary Experience of the Lower East Side
This blog post was written by Museum intern Lauren Peterson.Upon immigrating to the United States and settling into the Lower East side, Jews had arrived in the land of opportunity. As their relatives may have described it, New York was a city in which the roads were “lined with gold”. They saw the Lower East Side as the land of endless possibilities, not only to further their economic prospects but also to flaunt their Jewish heritage in a way that could have been dangerous while they were in their home country. Cultural freedom and capitalism merged in these American streets, and new immigrants used their environment to influence the culture of their adopted home. The freedom to celebrate their heritage combined with the necessity to acquire an economic foothold in American society resulted in the creation of dozens of soon-to-be iconic Jewish restaurants and eateries in the Lower East Side (and eventually, more across America). These new eateries marked a turning point in American culinary culture – there were a mere 10 Jewish kosher delis in New York at the end of the eighteenth century, but by the 1930s the city was home to 1,550.
This culinary history has roots in Eldridge Street: as readers may be familiar, Isaac Gellis was one of the original founders responsible for the creation of the Eldridge Street Synagogue in 1887. As a part of their grasp for the American Dream, Gellis founded one of the first kosher meat-packing industries in America. Starting in 1872, the Isaac Gellis Company produced the “fabled table treat[s]” of kosher sausages, as well as smoked and cured meats. The company was run by the power couple of Isaac and his wife Sarah Gellis. They operated out of 37 Essex Street on the Lower East Side, and operated on the belief of keeping kosher meat affordable and accessible to immigrants like those who would’ve frequented Eldridge Street.
Delis around the city would have used Gellis products, and nearly all such restaurants were owned by immigrants with a familiar background. One such deli was started by Jewish immigrant Willy Katz in 1888. “Katz’s Delicatessen” is now perhaps the most famous Jewish Deli in the entirety of New York, if not the entire country; and it is no coincidence that it exists on the Lower East Side. For over a century, Katz’s has been a fundamental gathering place for the celebration of Jewish cuisine; their famous menu features huge portions of pastrami on rye, and corned beef and briskets, to name a few. These large portions of meat stuffed in their sandwiches have more meaning than might think; the mountain of kosher meat popularized in the 1950s was meant to proclaim that “Jews have made it in America”. Today, it is rated the top deli in New York by zagat.com.
Just down the street from Katz’s, there is another Jewish deli that is known not for its overstuffed sandwiches, but another primary part of Jewish cuisine: bagels and lox. Although bagels may be understood as simply a New York tradition today, the word for bagel comes from the Yiddish word “beigel”, and has been a staple of Jewish cuisine in the Lower East Side virtually since immigration to the neighborhood began. “Russ & Daughters” was started by Polish-Jewish immigrant Joel Russ and his daughters in 1914, and the shop has been a longstanding family tradition ever since. Bucking the trend of Jewish sites disappearing in the neighborhood, this restaurant has recently expanded to multiple locations, including a cafe on Allen Street and an outpost in the Jewish Museum on 5th Avenue. Although Russ & Daughters are known for their bagels and lox, they also offer a wide variety of Jewish foods: like knishes, latkes, pastrami, and matzo ball soup. If you want to learn more about “Russ and Daughters”, and read recipes from their restaurant, there are copies of Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built for sale at the Museum’s gift shop.
These restaurants are such an enduring part of the neighborhood that even new ones are opening! The Pickle Guys, a belovedshop that has been serving famous authentic pickles to the Lower East Side for decades, has very recently opened a new restaurant, called Diller. The menu is entirely kosher and spotlights contemporary spins on classic Lower East Side staples. Besides their fried pickles, they offer a “reuben egg roll” with pastrami-spiced lentils that combines the Jewish-American pastrami sandwich with the classic Chinese egg rolls. We at Eldridge Street love this culinary combination that celebrates the melding of Jewish heritage with the contemporary Chinese community of the neighborhood (our own Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas festival does the same!) Diller represents in a powerful way the coexistence of the multifaceted cultures of the Lower East Side.
If you are interested in learning and experiencing more Jewish foods, I would also recommend reading: 100 Most Jewish Foods by Alana Newhouse.
All of these restaurants are a must-visit for those who are interested in having the full Lower East Side experience, and enjoy a taste of American-Jewish cuisine, which has always been a staple of the Lower East side experience.
Lauren Peterson is a Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern. She is currently studying History and Diplomacy at Princeton University.