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Dining out on nostalgia

by Jenna Weissman Joselit on March 1st, 2015

Zeitgeist is one of those words that historians like to toss around a lot. When called on by our students to explain, we’re apt to say that it’s a German word that means ‘spirit of the age,’ and that they’ll know one zeitgeist from another when they see it.

Russ & Daughters

Russ & Daughters. Flickr/Jeffrey Bary

We’re smack in the middle of a zeitgeist right now, one in which culinary matters have taken center stage, all the more when leavened by a heavy dose of nostalgia. Everywhere you turn, there’s a feature story, a full-length book, a documentary or a new restaurant that traffics in the foods of yesteryear.

From Sturgeon Queens and Deli Man to Welcome to Kutsher’s, the silver screen, or its digital equivalent, is awash in films that chronicle and celebrate a trio of institutions beloved by a much earlier generation of American Jews: the appetizing store, the deli and the Catskill resort where smoked fishes and smoked meat were had in abundance.

Heartwarming, endearing and often laugh-out-loud funny, these films are heavy on sentiment and light on commentary. We’re not meant to ponder so much as embrace. And eat.

Russ & Daughters Café, in the heart of the Lower East Side, is both a beneficiary of this newfound nostalgia as well as its conveyor. Created by two members of the fourth generation of the 100-year-old-family-run business, it purveys all manner of traditional fare — lox, sable, bagels, bialys, seeded rye bread, halvah — but with a twist. The restaurant’s handsomely produced booklet of available potables — of egg creams, flavored sodas and caraway-infused Bloody Marys — calls it the “old standards and the newly invented.”

Dining at Russ & Daughters Café manages to be simultaneously reverential and sly: a cheeky homage to food, drink and history. Where else would a wooden cutting board be prominently displayed and hung just-so, or an old paper shopping bag be handsomely framed as if it were a fine print? Judging from the size of the crowds, the formula is a winning one. That the food is really, really good helps, too.

A group effort, making sense of culinary nostalgia calls on the talents of historians, folklorists, journalists and foodies. A number of them will gather together this coming Thursday, March 5th, at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss “A Taste of the Old World: Jewish Food and Memory.”

Anyone with a hankering for history and an appetite for conversation should be on hand.

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