Early last month, Ben Katchor and I sat in B&H Dairy, a narrow East Village restaurant, eating giant cheese blintzes topped with sour cream and discussing the finer points of their construction. Should they be rolled like an egg roll, or folded like a burrito? Deep-fried or pan-fried? Can you really make them with sliced white bread instead of the traditional pancakes? (Yes.)
Then I asked a deeper question: In what culinary universe does a dish of buttery pancakes folded around creamy fresh cheese need a garnish of sour cream?
Mr. Katchor shrugged. “It’s a dairy restaurant,” he said. “They go for it.”
Places like this, with menus of blintzes and borscht, onion rolls and matzo brei, all lavished with butter and cream, flourished in Lower Manhattan in the early 20th century.
The subjects of Mr. Katchor’s new book, “The Dairy Restaurant” (Schocken, $29.95), were community cornerstones: cheap, filling refuges that made it possible for Jewish immigrants in New York to eat out according to kosher laws, by keeping milk and meat strictly separated, with fish, eggs and vegetables as neutral go-betweens. Most of the restaurants in the book have been closed for years, but that has not ended Mr. Katchor’s devotion.
“Only after they were gone did I understand why I found them appealing,” Mr. Katchor said. “They were the last remnant of working-class Jewish culture in the city.”
Mr. Katchor, 68, has been working as a cartoonist since the 1980s. Like Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman, he made comic strips that were not comical, paving the way for modern graphic novels. (He prefers the term “picture stories.”)
“The Dairy Restaurant” has some of the same nostalgia for lost places as his long-running strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” set in an imagined city that happens to look exactly like New York, but with places like Saltine Avenue and an abandoned Asylum for Pretzel Addicts.
But the book is firmly — obsessively — factual, telling the history of this institution at a time when, as it turns out, everyone is feeling just as nostalgic about restaurants as he is.
It begins by tracing Jewish beliefs about milk from the Garden of Eden (which he considers the first vegetarian restaurant, complete with a cranky host who ejects unruly customers), through the diets of nomadic goatherds like Abraham, to dairymen like Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye who worked in Eastern European shtetls.
The story arrives in the United States in the late 19th century — with Polish, Hungarian, Russian and Romanian immigrants — and peaks in the first half of the 20th with destinations like Famous Dairy in Brooklyn, Barnholtz’s in Los Angeles, Tolstoy Vegetarian Restaurant and Library in Chicago, and the once-palatial Ratner’s on Delancey Street, which finally closed in 2002. (“Only the onion rolls were good to the bitter end,” Mr. Katchor said.)
After 35 years of research, he has tentatively identified the first dairy restaurant owners as Romanian immigrants who brought their staples of mamaliga (polenta), soft cheese and placinta — a stuffed pancake that is halfway between a Polish-Hungarian blintz and a Balkan burek.
In the extensive culinary archives of the New York Public Library, he found an 1890 advertisement for a restaurant at 64 Delancey Street serving “Buckarester” blintzes, kreplach and “mamaliga de lux.”(Yonah Schimmel, the famous maker of knishes, was also Romanian.)
Like many successful restaurant owners, Jewish Americans often discouraged their children from continuing in the business. As the customers moved from cities to suburbs in the 1960s, when Mr. Katchor was growing up in Brooklyn, the dairy restaurants began to disappear.
Most of the surviving icons of Jewish-American food are delicatessens like Katz’s on the Lower East Side and Langer’s in Los Angeles, which serve meat — lots of it — but no cheese, at least in theory. (According to the current owner of Katz’s, Jake Dell, it took decades of family debate to get a Reuben sandwich — corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese — on the menu.)
Traditional “appetizing” stores like Russ & Daughters and Murray’s Sturgeon Shop focused on smoked, pickled and cured fish, and lacked seating. Only dairy restaurants, brightly lit and often tiled to emphasize their cleanliness — what Mr. Katchor calls “refined industrial hygiene” — were cheap, welcoming and safe for Jews for whom the possibility of eating nonkosher meat, even by mistake, was a constant concern.
Mr. Katchor does not consider himself observant, but the book opens with extensive analysis and illustrations of certain Old Testament texts related to milk and meat. The specific prohibition against cooking an animal in its mother’s milk, which evolved into total separation, appears not once but three times in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis, when Noah is negotiating with God after the flood, he agrees that people will not eat blood — the reason for the “koshering” process of rubbing meat with salt. In Exodus, Moses is able to receive the commandments because the angels who intervene between him and humanity are being punished for a deed recounted in Genesis, eating meat with yogurt in Abraham’s tent.
These texts determined a fundamental part of Jewish life that led, over thousands of years, to our lunch at B&H Dairy.
Open since about 1937 (though currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic), it is the last survivor of a strip that practically flowed with milk and honey in the early 20th century. Second Avenue had become the center of a flourishing international Yiddish-language theater movement, and dairy restaurants proliferated to serve the performers and audiences.
At the same time, New York’s kosher home cooks were more or less continually locked in battle with the city’s kosher butchers over the price of meat. The retail butchers blamed the Beef Trust, a cohort of shippers, kosher slaughterers and rabbinical inspectors that controlled every aspect of the city’s supply.
The result was a series of meat strikes, breathlessly covered in The New York Times and elsewhere, that included riots by women on the Lower East Side and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (One headline: “Housewives Go On Strike, March from Store to Store Proclaiming That They’ll Live on Fish.”)
The aftermath was a long-term, citywide shortage of certified kosher meat. The advent of commercial refrigeration meant that fresh milk and cream were affordable and safe. And with progressive Jewish thinkers (most famously, Leon Trotsky) espousing vegetarian diets, there was a popular turn toward dairy meals.
B&H Dairy has a long and storied history that tracks the evolution of the East Village from the Yiddish theater stars Molly Picon and Fyvush Finkel through Allen Ginsberg (an owner in the 1970s said the B&H stood for “Beatniks and Hippies’), to Madonna and Sarah Silverman, who have all been regulars. In the 1990s, Mr. Katchor visited B&H every week to update his “Julius Knipl,” comic strip, which was on permanent display in the front window. He also met his wife, Susan, there, while he was eating a plate of gefilte fish at the counter. (She asked him what it was.)
Originally, gefilte fish was a labor-intensive Sabbath dish: a whole carp, gutted with the skin intact, then filled (that’s what “gefilte” means) with a mousse made of the fish, and finally cooked whole at a slow simmer to extract the rich gelatin from the skin and bones. Today, the filling (and sometimes the gelatin) is the dish.
“I don’t even like gefilte fish very much,” Mr. Katchor said. “But I always order it, because I don’t want it to disappear.”