Time is running out to see Esn! Jews and Food in America at the National Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Comprising signs, posters, menus, and other items from the collection of Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, this fascinating exhibit runs until 3 October 2010. The items on display represent a feast for those, like me, who remember such Lower East Side stalwarts as Bernstein-on-Essex-Street and Shapiro's Wines. It's all about "esn," the Yiddish word for eating.
Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by the following signage. (The holes in the signs were used to accommodate neon tubes.)
Garden Cafeteria sign on loan from the Museum at Eldridge Street.
The main exhibit hall contains additional signs as well as advertisements, menus, and other memorabilia—including wine!
While Chinese restaurants have been a favorite among Jews in New York since the late nineteenth century, there wasn't a kosher Chinese eatery in the city until deli-owner Sol Bernstein opened Bernstein-on-Essex-Street in 1959. In addition to Eastern European delicatessen, the menu featured such Cantonese-inspired dishes as Lo Mein Bernstein (with chicken livers among its ingredients) and Sweet & Pungent Spare Ribs. "Schmulka Bernstein's," as it was also known, closed in the mid-1990s.
In an effort to increase their appeal, Levy's showed that an Italian woman—checkered tablecloth and all—could love their rye bread, too.
In addition to opening "old country" restaurants, delis, and bakeries, Eastern European Jewish immigrants set up kosher wineries. Owing to their ready availability on the east coast, Concord grapes (developed in Concord, Massachusetts) were chosen. Though the sweet, syrupy wines produced therefrom may not have tasted much like the ones from Eastern Europe, they became practically obligatory at Passover seders.
Established in 1899 on New York's Lower East Side, Shapiro's quickly became one of the largest kosher wineries in America. Grapes were crushed in a block-long series of cellars below Rivington Street. (I recall taking a brief tour, years ago, with the aid of a flashlight.) The wine was sold at Shapiro's main store at 126 Rivington, and at wine shops around the country. Interestingly, the flagship store was permitted to remain open during Prohibition to allow the sale of "sacramental wine."
Shapiro's sold the building in 2000 and moved its operations to Monticello, New York. Its former site now houses Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a cupcake bakery.
To capture a larger share of Jewish customers, various large food corporations advertised by publishing recipe books, often together with Passover Haggadoth.
Mogen David produced a booklet providing tips for cooking with their wine. Inexplicably, it offers hints for basting pork, as well as recipes for Apple and Spareribs and Baked Ham Slices in Cream.
Maxwell House launched one of the most successful campaigns of that sort in 1933: customers were given one Haggadah with the purchase of two pounds of coffee. Their promotional kit directed grocers to "watch Jewish customers come in for the deal."
Barricini offered its "Barri" Holiday Chanukah Party Package containing puzzles as well as dreidl and Chanukah party games.
National Yiddish Book Center
Kaplen Family Building
1021 West Street
(on the campus of Hampshire College)
Amherst, MA 01002-3375 (map)