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How kosher dairy cuisine has become relevant in an age of stocking up

Illustrator Ben Katchor’s new book, The Dairy Restaurant, is a celebration of — as well as a lament for — a type of kosher eatery that has all but disappeared

Mike Licht/Flickr

B&H Dairy in the East Village.

Illustrator Ben Katchor’s new book, The Dairy Restaurant, is a celebration of — as well as a lament for — a type of kosher eatery that has all but disappeared.

“These dairy restaurants were kind of the last gasp of working-class Jewish culture in New York,” Katchor told Jewish Insider in a phone interview from his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he is self-isolating as the city waits out the novel coronavirus. Even if dairy restaurants have almost gone extinct from Jewish culinary life, he said, there are still lessons to be drawn from their food — particularly as people around the country are making do with the limited items in their pantries.

Background: Katchor, an associate professor of illustration at the Parsons School of Design, is the author and illustrator of a number of books, including The Jew of New York, Hand-Drying in America and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, a collection of comic strips. He decided to write The Dairy Restaurant out of a sense of nostalgia. “What it represented to me was this Yiddish-speaking Jewish culture, but it was still of the working-class or lower middle-class.”

Misnomer: Dairy restaurants — meatless joints specializing in milchig cuisine such as blintzes and whitefish sandwiches — aren’t limited to just milk- and cheese-based meals. “It’s not absolutely central to it,” Katchor told JI. That’s because in the 19th century and earlier, when dairy cuisine was being developed, milk and meat were novelties. “You had them maybe once a week,” Katchor said, adding that borscht, bean soups and kasha varnishkes, among other pareve menu items, are dairy restaurant standbys.

Pantry food: That is a menu ideal for occasions when home cooks are improvising with the items in their pantries — as many in quarantine and self-isolation have been forced to do. Milk and cheese expire quickly, but lentil and split pea soups — on the menu at B&H Dairy, the old East Village standby and the last of New York’s “Eastern European–facing dairies,” as Katchor put it  — last awhile. So does kasha, the dry-roasted grain otherwise known as buckwheat. What to do with it? “Kasha knishes,” Katchor said with relish. “You don’t need milk to make kasha knishes. That’s one of my favorite things you could have gotten in a dairy restaurant.”

Eat your vegetables — or not: Katchor told JI that he doesn’t keep kosher himself, though he has spent a lot of time thinking about Jewish dietary laws, which he described as “a kind of modified vegetarianism.” The shtetl diet of Eastern Europe was mostly a vegetarian one, he said, including potatoes, cabbage and kasha — the diet the fictional Tevye the Dairyman, for instance, might have eaten.

Rethinking our diets: The coronavirus, Katchor mused, should serve as an occasion to rethink what we eat and how we take many resources for granted. Katchor believes the industrialized food economy has been destructive to the environment and has given consumers a false sense of abundance. “Meat-eating is a special thing, where you go through this elaborate production and handling of slaughter,” he said. “It’s not something you do every day, and not everybody should be able to do it. You have to be trained to do it. And it limits how much meat you eat.”

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