I’ll Have What She’s Having: “Iconic New York Jewish Food” Book Review
Matzoh ball soup, Black & White cookies, Pastrami. Chances are you know the names of many of these foods and have certainly tasted plenty of them, but do you know the stories behind them? Iconic New York Jewish Food is a new book that dives into the delicatessen diaspora, where Jewish culture meets NYC to create a timeless menu that generations have enjoyed.
June Hersh has written five books about food so far, four of them centered on her Jewish heritage. The first, “Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival,” focused on Holocaust survivors from across Europe sharing their harrowing and important tales of overcoming the most inhuman things that could happen to a person while preserving the recipes that kept them moving forward. Her follow-ups were equally steeped in Judaism and the foods that go hand and hand with it. Iconic New York Jewish Food might be the best one to open eyes in a way her previous work wasn’t able to (although they already garnered a well-deserved lion’s share of eyes on them to warrant seven printings of her first book).
What separates this book from the others is how NYC has long been the home to the food evolution in the United States. For generations, this is where immigrants arrived and settled, and with them, a literal melting pot was made. “Iconic New York Jewish Food” examines how the Jewish people found new homes in America, what influenced the changes made to their cuisine, and what stood the test of time to become staples around the country.
It's impossible to find a book about New York where the city isn’t a character itself, but in Hersh’s history, there are plenty of real people with businesses that contributed to the menu featured in this book. Russ & Daughters, Katz’s Deli, Abe Lebewohl of the 2nd Avenue Deli, Hot Dog pioneers Charles Feltman and Nathan Handwerker, and countless others who made their life's work into filling hungry bellies and living the American dream. One would be shocked at how much NYC owes to this community when it comes to food that reaches far beyond the Empire state. Even the word “appetizing” comes from Jewish stores, as this book explains.
It's not all deli counters and hot dog carts, as June recounts the origins of dishes ranging from knishes, cheesecake, bagels, kreplach, egg creams, and so many others that even non-New Yorkers recognize. And, of course, don’t forget the pickle on the side (which actually has a full chapter all about this briney cuke)! And yes, chopped liver also gets a section, and it’s about time someone explained to me why people like to eat something that sounds like the antithesis of delicious – but actually tastes good.
Hersh does an amazing job making history come to life, complete with mounds of research to support these stories. Her writing is as approachable as the recipes featured alongside their lore, breaking down the steps of those eponymous New York eats into easy-to-make fare. Frankly, even I was surprised by how simple some of these items were to make, but it’s the repetition and soul that turn these from homely affairs into culinary masterpieces that will surely outlast us all. The stories start with their births, but all lead into modernity, looking at how contemporary chefs took these meals and transformed them into products that today’s mouths can appreciate, too.
While some of the locations mentioned in this book have since recently closed (primarily due to the pandemic), the majority remain open. It’s a testament to the heartiness of New Yorkers who want this type of food, whether it’s part of their culture or a piece of their own personal history that became part of their story. These foods made deep roots in NYC and spread them as far as they could, influencing palates across the country but always leading it back to the comfort of the concrete jungle.
If you’re a history buff and foodie, “Iconic New York Jewish Food” belongs in your personal library. It’s more than a reference and far from a textbook but is a wonderful book that’s digestible in more ways than one and will always have you coming back for seconds.