Hamantaschen’s New York Times debut
This blog post originally ran in March 2020. We’re reposting today, with some edits. Enjoy!
Not everyone dresses up for Purim or even knows the Purim story. But one culinary tradition seems to have transcended all other elements of the early springtime holiday. Even if you’re not Jewish, there’s a chance you know one thing about Purim -that’s right, I’m talkin’ hamantaschen. Seeking out or making your own little Purim cookies around this time has become its own tradition. They’re a beloved treat – a fun shape, versatile in flavors, and very specifically tied to the week or so surrounding Purim.
So when did the cookie move out of bubbe’s kitchen and into the wider world of baking? I waded into the New York Times archives to find out. The very first time the word hamantaschen was printed in the newspaper? March 11, 1954! Sixty-seven years ago! Now of course, this date does not coincide with the cookie’s actual invention. Jewish bakers would have been making the treats long before they got the nod from the Times. But being noticed by the newspaper does show that the tradition was gaining wider visibility and recognition across the city.
The article’s author is a little dubious that the cookies actually resemble Haman’s pocket (or, taschen in German), like the treat’s origin story says. But the author goes on to note that “At any rate, their name recalls the villain whose downfall Purim commemorates.” So where could these cookies be procured in 1954? Three places (today all closed, sadly) are mentioned by name, although surely there were many, many more at the time. The Tip Toe Inn, on 86th Street and Broadway, is one of the three.
Patricia Volk writes in her memoir Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family, “People ate [at the Tip Toe Inn] all the time. They came at three in the afternoon for dinner because you could get the same meal at lunchtime prices. It was the kind of place you heard people eat and saw people talk.” Philosopher and writer Alan Watts celebrated “the gourmandise of kosher dills, smoked sturgeon, cheese cake, lox, gefilte fish, and borscht” at the Inn. It seems to loom large in people’s memories, but visual evidence is scant. A good photo of the facade eluded me, but I did find a tiny bit of evidence. The below photo is from the digital collections of the New York Public Library; I found it using the Urban Archive app (one of my favorite tools for exploring historic photos).
You can see the Tip Toe Inn peaking out from the left-side edge of this 1935 view! Only the ‘TOE INN’ portion of their sign is visible. Luckily, we can do better than that photo when it comes to visualizing the beloved eatery. Because even though historic images are rare online, the Tip Toe Inn appeared on a 2010 episode of the popular midcentury drama Mad Men.
An article on Eater notes that Mad Men did a great job nailing details like the restaurant’s logo, shown on the outside window in their recreated set (and in the photos above). It’s the same one that appeared on the restaurant’s matchbooks. I love the “builders of appetites” slogan at the top.
The wide appeal of Jewish eateries like the Tip Toe Inn was instrumental in spreading Jewish food and drink to the wider American culture. Without those “builders of appetites,” it’s possible that seltzer would still be available only at Lower East Side lunch counters. Or babka might still be a foreign word to non-Jewish bakers. That’s not a world I want to live in! So this week, I’ll celebrate hamantaschen’s journey by buying a bunch at a bakery. Or maybe try making my own? The Times did include a recipe, taken from a 1949 cookbook called “Jewish Cookery” by Leah W. Leonard. It’s included below should you want to try out Ms. Leonard’s poppy and honey version. Note that the cookbook was published seven years before the Times mention! A clear example of them being, in this case, a little behind the times.