Potato, kasha, liver, or cheese knishes may once have been a celebratory food in the Ukraine, where the potatoes were encrusted in a flaky pastry. But on New York's Lower East Side, most specifically lower Second Avenue, nicknamed "knish alley," the knish became a convenient hot finger food that sweatshop workers could buy and take to work for a filling snack or lunch. Knishes were often sold outside, so they became a visible Jewish food. Because of the guttural "k" in knish, they were also an obvious target for vaudeville comedians.
Today knishes have gone mainstream. Yonah Shimmel, who has been selling his since 1913, sells flavored broccoli and spinach knishes. Whoever heard of vegetable knishes in Europe! Before knishes became chic, Schleider's Caterers sold them at Baltimore Oriole games. Blazer's market, catering to every ethnic group in Atlanta, sells freshly baked potato, spinach, and vegetable knishes along with empanadas and Vietnamese spring rolls.
In Daytona Beach, Florida, eighty-nine-year-old Betty Batalin is the queen of knishes. Born in Odessa, Russia, Mrs. Batalin came to New York at the age of nineteen and made a vow that "no one would ever go hungry in her house." No one has. Before a recent stroke slowed her down, she cooked up a storm in the kitchen of the local synagogue and at her daughter's home where she now lives. She crafted her finger pastries from a paper-thin strudel dough, cutting them with her little finger. Fortunately, unlike many mavens, she shared her recipe.
Scene from Goodbye Columbus, Paramount Pictures
Fryma Gorenstein, another queen of knishes