Book Review – Eating Delancey – A Celebration of Jewish Food


Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food
Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps
Powerhouse Books, 224 pages

In olde tymes, publishers would send a hard copy of a book to critics for review. In rare cases, this would be a galley copy, with a weird cerlox binding and double-wide pages, but usually it was something that resembled the finished version of the book. Technology has made this process much easier and cheaper – PDF files sent via the Cloud or email have replaced hard copies sent by mail, and pretty much everyone is happier for it, even reviewers who, while they often considered the reward of hard copies part of their (usually very minimal) pay structure, tended to find themselves with stacks of samples of things (books, CDs, jars of weird jams) that they really didn’t want.

The roundabout point of my complaint here is that, with a PDF file for review, I’m now going to have to go out and buy myself a copy of Eating Delancey. That’s right, even after reading it for free, I enjoyed this book so much I’m still going to buy my own copy.

Delancey Street, in the heart of New York City’s East Village was the centre of the Jewish community in the early 20th century. This neighbourhood of tenement slums, pushcarts, clothing jobbers and influxes of various ethnic communities was also home to the greatest concentration of Jewish food in North America.

Authors Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps have put together the most unique homage to the food of New York Jews. This collection of essays, photos, memoirs, quotes, profiles and recipes captures the spirit of a place and time; Katz’s, Schwartz’s and Sammy’s Roumanian are all accounted for, including in the form of recipes. Other recipes show up as family favourites or simple instructions (Schaps offers his method for gribenes, aka fried chicken skin, aka Jewish popcorn), and Yetta Wise’s Mandel Bread is honoured equally with the egg cream from Katz’s deli.

More important than the recipes (really, you’d rather make an egg cream than pass up a chance to go to Katz’s? And while I will try Aunt Pearl’s Inspired Old Fashioned Rugelach Recipe, my poor luck with the tasty cookie means that I will probably end up at a Jewish deli – in this case, Toronto’s Yitz’s – buying the things) is that Eating Delancey is the history of a community. While it speaks to every New York Jew who’s ever eaten brisket, it also speaks to everyone who has ever wandered the streets of the Lower East Side, and every person whose ancestors entered the United States via Ellis Island, stopping for a while in this part of the city where the community was friendly and supportive, and the food, music and culture were familiar.

Much has been made already of Eating Delancey‘s introduction by Joan Rivers, penned just before her death. And while Rivers is her sharp, funny self, the whole book is full of wonderful stories and personal histories, such as the Great Matzo Ball Battle of 1972 by caterer Andrew Freeman, or real estate agent Joyce Beymer recounting the story of her grandmother climbing atop a massive marble-topped table to roll out strudel dough on her hands and knees.

Beautiful photos to accompany the recipes by Aaron Rezny are complemented by archival images of the neighbourhood; the chicken market complete with window signage in Yiddish, a pretzel vendor on the street, a vintage interior shot of food shop Russ & Daughters; as well as personal photos of the essayists or the relatives mentioned in the writings, giving the book the feel of a lovingly compiled family scrapbook.

As a non-Jew who has loved most Jewish food since I walked into my first deli in 1987 shortly after moving to Toronto (RIP Switzer’s on Spadina), Eating Delancey makes me long for the golden age of blintzes, gefilte fish and latkes. Fortunately, enough of those old places are still around, with new places popping up as Jewish chefs strive to maintain their cultural heritage, that hopefully Rezny and Schaps will be able to create a second volume in a few decades time tracking the ongoing changes and memories of the food of Delancey Street and the lower east side.

In the meantime, I’ll live vicariously through other people’s stories by buying the book and continuing my search for a Jewish grandmother who will adopt me and cook me gefilte fish.

This post originally appeared on Vermicious, a totally cool culture blog curated by the awesome John Seven.