Monday, March 1, 2021

What is this, Gluckstern’s?

New York City, 
1948 


The Dairy Restaurant is a fascinating new book by writer and cartoonist Ben Katchor. Jewish dairy restaurants attracted patrons who followed the dietary laws that forbid the mingling of meat and any milk-based product, and those who simply yearned for the comforting dishes of Eastern European Jewish cuisine, such as borscht, salmon, potato latkes, blintzes, and kreplach (small dumplings filled with cheese).1 These eateries are now almost completely gone, barely leaving a trace. The surprising lack of primary source material prompted me to take a fresh look at menus in my collection from Jewish restaurants of all kinds. Two in particular caught my attention. They came from Gluckstern’s and Isaac Gellis which were kosher meat restaurants on opposite ends of Manhattan. The menus were saved in 1948 by an anonymous couple who marked the dishes they ordered with X’s or O’s. The simple notations evoked a reminiscent feeling similar to what one reviewer described as Katchor’s “melancholy yiddishkeit,” recalling bygone eating places that were once a part of everyday life.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

A Sunday Dinner

New York City, 
1882 


Menus are generally the only documents that speak to how people dined outside the home in the nineteenth century. Yet, it is nearly impossible to get a visceral sense of a list of dishes from a bygone era, especially when you are removed by more than a hundred years of radical changes. On rare occasions, patrons marked the dishes they ordered, thereby enriching the historical evidence. An annotated menu from the Grand Central Hotel in New York provides a case in point, showing what two guests ordered for dinner on Sunday evening, February 12, 1882. The anonymous diners, identified simply as “A” and “E,” clearly understood the nuances of the menu and took full advantage of the opportunity.