The Jewish Food I Knew*

Five Types of Jewish Restaurant  mid-20th Century

 

I was examining wartime New York menus in the nypl.org archive to get a sense of how European wines were treated, for example was Champagne still sold, other French wine, German wine, etc.?

I came across a menu from Gluckstern’s Roumanian Restaurant, which largely resonated for different reasons, as detailed below. (All extracts shown are from the New York Public Library).

Gluckstern’s was a kosher Jewish eatery in the Lower East Side. It endured for about 60 years before expiring in the 1960s. Two restaurants with a somewhat similar menu were set up midtown in the 1950s by a son of one of the founders. They carried the flag for a time after the first restaurant closed but no restaurant associated with the surname exists today.

In Montreal when I grew up in the 50s and 60s, there was the “Roumanian steakhouse” – similar to Gluckstern’s for the steak side of its menu. One was called Schneider’s, on Decarie Boulevard. When I looked at the 1943 Gluckstern menu, it brought back many items on the Schneider’s menu.

The broiled meats were very similar including Romanian karnatzlach. This was a skinless beef sausage in which garlic played, shall we say, a decisive role. I liked the mixed grill, a selection of charcoal-broiled meats, I recall a lamb chop, the karnatzlach, crusty sweetbreads, and a rib-eye, the heart of the rib steak. The latter is cut from the rib roast but char-broiled in Montreal for a steak; it is still a specialty there.

In the mixed grill, a slice of liver sometimes substituted for the sweetbreads.

So that came with french fries or a baked potato. On the table were cole slaw and pickles, plus rolls and chala. In Montreal pickled tomatoes were part of the pickles selection at some restaurants, I think at Schneider’s too.

There were Jewish steakhouses that didn’t identify themselves as “Roumanian” but the menus were all broadly similar. Moishes is the last one and still popular in Montreal. In fact I’m sure it attracts more Gentiles than Jews at this point.

Schneider’s, being a suburban middle-class restaurant and also a steakhouse vs. a general restaurant, did not offer as many dishes as Gluckstern’s. Schneider’s did not carry roast veal, roast chicken or duck, or stuffed derma, for example. That was available, but in a different kind of Jewish restaurant in Montreal at the time.

So now I should say, I recall five types of Jewish restaurant: first, but almost least important, the delicatessen with its corned beef and chopped liver. Second, the steakhouse with a possible sub-division for the Roumanian iteration. Third, the non-steakhouse family cuisine where roasts, boiled meats, soups, certain fish, carrot and noodle puddings, strudels, and other dishes of Jewish Mitteleuropa were available: home cooking but to eat out.

Last, the dairy restaurant, or milchig. Here there were cheese and potato blintzes, kasha and bow ties (buckwheat groats with pasta), knishes, smoked salmon, herring and carp, soups especially with beets (borsht), sour cream, cottage and cream cheeses, salads, eggs, bagels, rye bread, hummus, etc.

There was some crossover: chopped liver, say, could feature at the delicatessen or the steakhouse, or even the dairy restaurant but there it was “mock” chopped liver: vegetarian.

Of these restaurant types, only the deli still has a real footprint. The dairy restaurant barely exists in Toronto, there are a couple I know that are pretty good. The ubiquitous bagel shop is a kind of watered-down version of what was the dairy restaurant.

The home-cooking places are gone. The Roumanian-denominated steakhouses are gone in Canada. A few un-hyphenated Jewish steakhouses continue here and there, sort of: Moishes is the most authentic. The Jewish steakhouse has tended to merge with the steakhouse of the larger community, but at one time was separate due to being kosher and offering numerous ethnic dishes apart the steak selection. For example, most steakhouses offer seafood today but the old Jewish steakhouse did not.

Why did we patronize the Roumanian steakhouse? Part of my ancestry is from Romania, they were artisans (tailoring) who lived outside of Bucharest. I grew up with some of the typical dishes, say mamaliga, which is cornmeal mush and eaten hot or cold. And certain eggplant preparations. Mamaliga was served with a chalky cottage cheese or with sour cream. I don’t remember eating it with meat but know some people did.

Of course, much of the Jewish food was common to the Diaspora everywhere, or close enough. At least for the European Jews that was so, we did not know the Sephardic side – when I grew up in Montreal, I mean.

The other part of the family was from Grodno or other towns in what is now western Russia. In Grodno, half the population in 1905 was Jewish but they wanted to get out due to the requirements for onerous military service and the recurrent pogroms. My people got out before WW I and came to Montreal. The Romanian part too, around 1905.

Almost every Jew still in Grodno in 1939 – about half the population still – was killed by the Nazis, so it’s a good thing they left when they did. I used to ask my grandmother from there what she remembered, she said the parks, she loved the parks as a toddler. You can see pictures of them in the Wikipedia entry on Grodno. One day I’ll visit there, Bucharest too.

I did visit once a number of eastern European countries and despite the dolorous history of the Jews there I felt rather at home; something was very familiar. Not just the food and drink (instant rapport!) but everything. Something lingers in the folk memory, especially with us – famously with us.

So that’s what came to mind when I read the Gluckstern menu of 1943, a very bad year for Jews except in blessed America, blessed Canada, and blessed Britain. And a few other places Jews could live without a dagger over their hearts, Palestine too although it was much harder there than here or in Britain, and still is.

Where was I … the wine.

Numerous wines on the Gluckstern menu were American, e.g., Cresta Blanca, but the other offerings too where identified by varietal or place name: Tokay, Sauterne, Burgundy, etc. No Riesling though, and I guess I know why.

There were a few selections from Palestine, and tucked away in that section, wines seemingly Italian and French (Chianti, B&G which must have been Barton & Guestier, the famous shipper). These must have been pre-war stocks and it was probably considered okay in New York to sell them off. If they were in inventory at the time wines from France and Italy became unobtainable, that is understandable for any restaurant given the investment made.

In this vein a few Cognacs were offered. Although, if Gluckstern’s knew what the French police did at Drancy in 1941-1942 I’d guess they’d have tossed French wines and spirits in the trash.

Anyway, wine is kind of an afterthought at a place like this. Beer too although I’m glad to see they had Guinness, the only beer identified by brand name. That would have been Foreign Extra Stout, all-malt, long-matured and non-pasteurized: they had good taste at Gluckstern, if the menu left any doubt on that.

It was hard spirits that was more in tune with the steakhouse ethos, especially vodka, also slivovitz, the plum brandy. Whisky too, and there are some good ones on that menu from the main whisky countries.

And believe it or not a lot of families drank tea or soda pop. And many still do, Hebrew and other. Drink is not for everyone nor should it be.

But Schneider’s mixed grill and Gluckstern’s selections were, take my word for it, the apotheosis of the carnivorous genre. If you were vegetarian, and I knew some even in the 1960s, you didn’t go to a Roumanian restaurant. The dairy restaurant was fine though.

Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse in New York is the last of its type probably in North America. I went there once, it was fun. It’s a bit hammy (sorry) with the dancing in the centre and ice block-festooned vodka bottles, but we had a good time.

I really want to go back to Schneider’s though, or a Gluckstern’s.

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*This article deals with restaurants as the food we ate at home was largely North American except no pork. Even bagel was only an occasional treat. We ate sliced white bread for toast and sandwiches and I still like it best among the breads I think. We had chala too of course, on Friday. Chala ranks up there among the breads, and the Jewish rye bread, but it’s rare to get them the way I remember. Whereas sliced white bread, if very fresh, is as good as ever. Also, of course we had holiday food such as unleavened bread or matzah and latkes (potato pancakes) but 90% of the meals we had at home were typical North American: burgers, spaghetti, stews, chicken, Swanson dinners, chops, roasts, omelettes, tinned vegetables, sweet corn in season, all the usual. I am speaking here of my own experience, of course.

Note re images: the menu images appearing above were sourced from the original menu linked in the text from the New York Public Library. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

1 thought on “The Jewish Food I Knew*

  1. I’ll anticipate the probable reaction of many readers: you forgot the sixth Jewish restaurant: the Chinese one. Very true it is, but it is really a separate topic. I may revisit.

    Gary

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