Tag Archives: History

I'm Getting Myself Into a Pickle

For the last year, I have been stuffing my face with cheesecake. It’s time to give my cholesterol levels a break. And so I racked my brain trying to come up with an iconic New York food that wouldn’t give me a heart attack. And so I came up with one of the city’s first street food. Pickles.

The need to preserve perishable vegetables is thouands of years old. The first known pickles were made around 2030 BC in the Tigris Valley with cucumbers brought from India. Pickles have been mentioned in the Bible, by Aristotle, in Shakespeare’s plays, and on many episodes of Portlandia.

Long before street meat was king, you would have seen pickle carts all up and down the Lower East Side being peddled by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. But it was actually much earlier that the first pickles arrived on this island.

They’ve been in New York since the beginning. The Dutch brought their love of pickling and began growing cucumbers in current day Brooklyn. Once pickled, they sold them from markets across the city and created the world’s largest pickle industry. In fact, the Dutch gave us the word we use today. Pickle comes from the Dutch word pekel, meaning salt or brine.

The act of pickling something is basically taking fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, you name it, and soaking it in a vinegar or salt liquid so that it begins to ferment and stays good for a longer period of time. Throw in some garlic, mustard seeds, cloves, cinnamon, or whatever and you have a tasty (and probiotic) snack.

As Jewish immigrants flooded the Lower East Side beginning in the late 1800’s, they too sold pickles from barrels and pushcarts on the street. Pickles were very popular in Eastern Europe due to the practicality of preserving the food, but also because they offered a strong tang to complement the bland flavors of a bread and potato diet. Orchard Street should have been nicknamed Pickle Street due to all of the pickle pushers.

To this day, you can’t (or shouldn’t) eat a deli sandwich without the complement of a kosher dill pickle. It adds acidity and cleanses the palate. In New York, you can find both the bright green ones known as “half-sours” which are fermented for only a short period of time, or the “full-sours” which are more dull in color but much more sour and fully fermented.

Unfortunately, like most of the food and drink industry in the US, pickles mostly became a commercially processed product and most Americans have had their first and only taste of pickles from a jar – often with flavoring, coloring, and more sugar than necessary. About 15 years ago or so, some Brooklyn food artisans decided to begin to restore the food industry by making things the old-fashioned way. Pickles were a big part of that movement. Now, in addition to the old-school Jewish pickle guys, we also have a younger generation that are making all sorts of incredible, full-flavored pickles.

Just like dumplings, every culture has their own version of pickles. The Koreans have kimchi, the Germans have sauerkraut, the Scandinavians have pickled fish, and the hipsters have beets, jalapeños, and kale. You can find all of these in New York, but for the purpose of this search, I’m going to focus on pickled cucumbers. Both the old Jewish variety (of which there are only a handful of purveyors left) and the new wave of pickle makers.

Sure, my cholesterol levels might get a rest for a bit, but I’m about to hugely increase my intake of sodium. I better put my doctor on speed dial. Regardless I’m going to shut up and… Eat This!


Category: Pickles

Having My Cheesecake

Like most people, I assumed cheesecake was either invented in New York or brought here in the 1800’s by one of the groups of European immigrants. It could have been the Jews, Italians, or even the Hungarians. All seem to currently have a version of cheesecake in modern day NYC.

But the real story about cheesecake is much more surprising. The origins of cheesecake is not from a little village in Germany, but in fact in ancient Greece (possibly on the island of Samos).  Cheesecake in one form (“pounded cheese, mixed with honey and spring wheat”) was served to the participants at the first Olympic games since cheesecake was thought to possess a lot of energy. Can you imagine Michael Phelps stuffing a slice in his face between laps today?

After the Romans conquered Greece, they stole the recipe, modified it, used it as an offering to the Gods (those were some lucky Gods), and began spreading it (along with their armies) across Western Europe. The Ancient Greek cheesecake was tweaked as each nation that discovered cheesecake put their own spin on it – like a very delicious game of telephone. Most began to use beaten eggs (as opposed to yeast) which gave the dessert a sweeter, richer flavor. Many Europeam immigrants brought their own distinct cheesecake recipe to New York when they immigrated here.

But then New York added their own ingredient when cream cheese was invented in 1872 in New York (not in Philadelphia). A dairy farmer named William Lawrence accidentally made cream cheese in his failed attempt to re-create a Frech soft cheese called Neufchâtel. It might have been one of the best failures ever.

The origins about how cream cheese entered the cheesecake recipe and made New York famous for its rendition of the cake is much disputed. However, most people agree that it was a Jewish-German immigrant named Arnold Reuben who first put cream cheese-based cheesecake on his menu in 1929 at his famous delicatessen Reuben’s (you can guess another iconic NY dish that was claimed to be invented there). The story goes Arnold Reuben tasted a cheese pie (probably made with cottage cheese) at a dinner party and then decided to make it his own. Turns out he made it his own for generations of New Yorkers.

Since then, the recipe continues to be tweaked and expanded for different cultures (we now have Japanese cheesecake) and tastes (think strawberry or chocolate cheesecake). New York might be the youngest city to claim cheesecake as its own, but we’ve put our unique stamp on it and I, for one, am very grateful because now I get to shut up and… Eat This!


Category: Cheesecake

Fallin' For Falafel

There is much controversy surrounding the history of the humble little falafel. One thing that is certain is that it is now as ubiquitious in New York City as hot dogs or pizza. In fact, the task of finding the best falafel is as ludicrous as searching for the best pizza or best bagel in New York. I must be a crazy man. Or at least a really hungry one.

Falafel is an ancient food (probably the oldest of all the foods I’ve focused on so far), maybe even dating back to biblical times. But ironically, it’s a new addition to the New York food scene. Before 1971 when Mamoun’s opened their doors in Greenwich Village, it would have been rare (perhaps impossible) to find a falafel sandwich in the entire city.

Falafel (for those living under a rock for the last four decades) is a ball or patty of ground up chickpeas. Fava beans might be substituted or mixed-in. Herbs, spices, and vegetables can be included in the mix with anything from mint, and parsley to onion and garlic to cumin and red pepper. The ball is then fried until crisp and then eaten by itself or inside a pocket sandwich (usually pita bread). Toppings, like tahini, hummus, vegetables, and hot sauce also make the experience unique and delicious.

The word falafel might have come from the Arabic “filfil” meaning pepper or the Egyptian “pha la phel” meaning “of many beans.”

Many nationalities and religious groups would argue where the falafel originated. But it is generally believed that it was first eaten about 1000 years ago in Egypt by Christian Copts. They ate fried chickpeas as a substitute for meat during Lent. Other theories suggest falafel first appeared on the subcontinent of India around the 6th Century. And still others claim ancient Jews invented it while slaves in Egypt. Wherever it began, it spread all across the Middle East and just about every country in that region enjoys it today.

Today, it’s considered the national dish of Israel (although Palestinians claim the Israelis stole it from them). It can be found in Syria, Persia, Jordan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the list goes on. It’s kosher, halal, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, dairy free, nut free. What a versatile little fritter! No wonder everybody wants to claim it as their own.

In the last 40 years, waves of immigrants from the Middle East have come to New York and they’ve brought their food with them, making the falafel one of the city’s most recent iconic dishes. From food carts to meze platters to takeout storefronts with frustratingly long lines, I’m going to get in touch with my inner vegetarian in order to shut up and… Eat This!


Category: Falafel

Can you think of a more American food than hot dogs? Sure, we can claim many different regional specialities, not to mention barbecue, hamburgers, and (sadly) fast food chains. But what dish is so closely associated with the one true all-American pastime – baseball? No matter what American city you’re in, when you go out to the ballgame, you don’t want a big juicy burger, you want a hot dog. Tell me I’m wrong!

As is the story with most iconic foods from this city, it was the immigrants that brought over the building blocks for the hot dog. German butchers brought the processed meats known as sausages to New York. Many of them started businesses from pushcarts, including Charles Feltman who owned a pie wagon in Coney Island, Brooklyn. He wanted to serve a hot savory sandwich to his customers and thus in 1867 decided to put a boiled sausage on a milk bun. This eliminated the need for much space (since a friend built a small boiler) on the cart and prevented customers from burning their hands on a steaming hot sausage.

Feltman later opened a huge restaurant and one of his employees, a man by the unfortunate name of Nathan Handwerker opened his own nearby hot dog stand in 1918 out-pricing his mentor by 5 cents and so began Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs and the quintessential New York frank.

Some combination of pork and/or beef (along with fat, trimmings, salt, preservatives, and who knows what else) in a casing of sheep intestine or collagen (hungry now?) are the traditional hot dogs (although now we have everything from turkey to elk to salmon) in this country. I don’t know about you, but you can tell me anything goes inside a hot dog and it still sounds mighty tasty to me.

We get the names “frankfurters” and “wieners” from the towns of Frankfurt, Germany and Wien (Vienna), respectively, who both had their version of these sausages. But there are many theories as to where the name “hot dog” comes from. Back in the 1890’s, people didn’t know what went into these casings and some people guessed that it might in fact be dog meat.

Others say the shape of the long thin sausage resembled the body type of the dachshund hound. When NY cartoonist T.A. Dorgan heard hawkers selling “red hot dachshund sausage” at a 1901 polo game, he decided to shorten it to “hot dog” in his cartoon since he had trouble spelling the full name. That’s my favorite story. Misspellings are funny!

Whether they’re kosher, all natural, deep fried, served with a side of papaya juice, or just from some dirty water cart, I’m about to get in touch with my American (and New York) roots in my search for the best dogs in the city. Ok, it’s time for me to shut up and… Eat This!


Category: Hot Dogs

There were so many great iconic NY dishes to choose from for my next food search, but I decided to go with something completely different. Hot dogs and cheesecake will have to wait. First, I’m going to drink lots of beer.

Okay, so it’s not technically something you eat. I probably should temporarily re-name the site Drink This NY. But in many ways, beer is liquid bread – the most delicious and refreshing bread I’ve ever tasted.

Beer is most likely our oldest beverage. Recipes have been discovered in hieroglyphics, in ancient hymns, and on Syrian tablets. The first beer was probably consumed over 6,000 years ago. And I’m willing to bet it wasn’t a Bud Light.

The first known brewery in America was opened in lower Manhattan (then known as New Amsterdam) in 1612 by Adrian Block and Hans Christiansen. There was even a street in the original Dutch colony known as Brewers Street (now Stone Street).

When the British took over, they brought us different styles of ales like stouts and porters. And then when Germans started immigrating in the mid-1800’s to areas like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, they introduced lagers to this country. At that time, beer was drunk locally at beer gardens or breweries. Popping open a six pack in front of the TV was not really an option back then.

The main ingredients for beer are rather simple: water, grains, yeast, and hops (a type of flower). Of course, the brewing of beer has become easier with modern technology and machinery, but the process has pretty much remained the same. The grains (or malt) are milled and then boiled in water. Hops are added for aroma, flavor, and preservatives. After the mixture is cooled, it’s added to a fermenter where yeast is introduced. Yeast eats all the sugar in the mixture and turns it into carbonated alcohol. Then it stumbles home.

Speaking of stumbling home, when I was in college, I was the guy who would stand in the corner at parties while everybody else did keg stands. I just didn’t like beer. I also didn’t like massive amounts of liquid being poured down my throat upside down. But I might have been more prone to trying it if the beer tasted good. Of course, the beer they were serving at those parties were the cheapest ones on offer. Most mass produced commercial beers are made with rice or other fillers and the only real flavor profile is water.

Thankfully, the craft beer revolution has begun. When President Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing in the 1970’s, many people found a passion for making intensely flavored, small batch quality beers – something this country hadn’t really experienced since before Prohibition. And while cities like Portland and Denver are overflowing with craft breweries, New York is making a name for itself again in the beer community.

So since New York is where beer in this country started and there are lots of nearby breweries doing lots of interesting things, I’m eager to taste the best of the best. I’ll be hitting local breweries (both in the city and just on the outskirts), bars that specialize in NY craft beers, and speciality beer stores. And through it all, I’m going to try to stay moderately sober and I’m going to shut up and… Eat (or Drink) This!

 


Category: Beer

Oy vey! I’m not much of a breakfast person (partly because I sleep rather late) so you won’t ever see this site dedicated to finding the best oatmeal in the city. However there is one breakfast dish that is so iconic to New York City that there was no way I could ignore it. Bagels have to be my next food adventure.

Fortunately for me, bagels aren’t just a breakfast dish anymore. It’s not uncommon to use a bagel at lunch to hold your sandwich together. And many bagel shops in the city are open well into dinner time. People love these things any time of the day.

It’s not completely clear when and where bagels were first created. There is an old story that says a round yeast dough in the form of a stirrup (the German word beugel means stirrup) was first baked in the 17th Century as a tribute to King Jan Sobieski of Poland, who protected Austria from Ottoman invaders. However, most people discount that story as legend and point out that bagels were first mentioned in print years earlier in Krakow, Poland. And that the word bagel comes from the German word beigen meaning to bend and claim it’s a descendant of the pretzel.

Besides being delicious and filling, bagels have served practical purposes over the years. New mothers were often given bagels as gifts because the round shape symbolizes eternal life and perhaps to help with teething. Thanks to the hole in the center, merchants could thread the bagels onto rods and transport them easily to sell on the streets. And perhaps the most practical purpose of all is why we relate them to a specific people.

The bread became very popular with Jewish bakers because of its unique baking process. After the dough is kneaded and shaped, it must be chilled for at least 12 hours to allow the dough to slowly rise, thus allowing Jews to essentially make bagels without working on the Sabbath. They were able to start the recipe the night before, let the dough work on its own during the holy day, and finally after the Sabbath was over, finish boiling and baking the bagels. Some people might call that cheating, I call it inJewnuity.

So of course it was Eastern European Jews who brought the bagel to New York (and to Montreal, which has their own bagel culture) around the turn of the 20th Century. A trade union, Bagel Bakers Local 338, was quickly formed with 300 Yiddish speaking craftsmen. This union controlled all bagel making in the city, passing the exclusive trade down to sons of members, until the 1960’s when the invention of the bagel-making machine enabled the popularity of bagels to grow and reach other parts of the country.

But the magic started here in New York and it’s still the place to get the best bagels, whether you like it with sesame seeds, a schmear, lox, or tomatoes. So bring on the carbs, I’m ready to eat breakfast at lunch, get my cream cheese fill, and consume more than a few open calories. Once again, I’m ready to shut up and… Eat This!


Category: Bagels

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