With Rosh Hashanah coming up this weekend, many Jews are starting to think about the rituals and traditions of the New Year. Whether or not we attend the synagogue, many of us will reflect on the meaning of our heritage through food, with the most well-known food ritual being apples dipped in honey — a tradition that signifies the sweetness that one hopes for in the New Year.
Particularly in the past few years, New Yorkers have seen many restaurants and shops open up that celebrate a Jewish identity in a more flexible and contemporary way. Shelsky’s of Brooklyn is one such eatery that describes its offerings as “smoked fish marries tradition to the new Brooklyn lifestyle.” In preparation for the holiday, we spoke with owner Peter Shelsky about his modern interpretations of Jewish classics.
Shana Tova — may your year be sweet like honey.
Interested modern takes on Jewish classics that you can make at home? Revisit this story featuring Jeffrey Yoskowitz of The Gefilteria’s recipe for apple strudel and Jewish cookbook author Leah Koenig’s challah.
Edible Brooklyn: As a new appetizing shop with a Jewish identity, how does your food give a voice to the younger generation of Jews who might feel more connected to their heritage through food as opposed to religious traditions?
Peter Shelsky: I made the decision to not be a certified Kosher facility before I opened the store in 2011. I felt that by making that particular decision, I was embracing a younger, more secular, more foodie (for lack of better term) audience. This is the food that I grew up eating — it is my soul food, my nostalgia food. But the interesting thing about nostalgia food is that while it isn’t always cool, it never really goes away. We just wanted to make it cool again (to that end, I’ve been hash tagging #jewfoodrenaissance). Most of our customers grew up eating Appetizing and have fond memories of eating it with their families. Increasingly secular, they hold on to this food as their primary connection to their Jewish identity. We bring them the nostalgia, but we update it a bit — and then we just have some fun with it!
I stick closely to tradition, by making my Grandma Yetta’s gefilte recipe, which is more salty and savory than sweet. But, because many people grew up eating the sweeter variety, I make a sweeter mixture as well so people have a choice. And, to update things a bit, instead of only making red beet horseradish and white extra hot horseradish, we also do a wonderfully tart apple horseradish. Truth be told, I switched allegiances on the gefilte fish later in life—while I grew up on salty, I actually prefer the sweet now.
The other really fun thing we’re offering for Rosh Hashanah is Manischewitz-braised lamb shanks. It turns out that that swill is good for something! We braise the lamb shanks in classic Concord grape Manischewitz with Mexican cinnamon, fresh thyme and smoked paprika.
My customers want the good stuff, and now they want to know where it’s coming from, how it’s made, and I’m that guy too. We get a big kick out of sourcing smoked whitefish from Door County, Wisconsin, cold-smoked wild Alaskan sockeye salmon from a retired bush pilot physician in Ninilchik, Alaska, smoked haddock from Deer Isle, Maine, salmon bacon from Seattle — we have a blast with it.
EB: What is your shop offering for Rosh Hashanah?
PS: The aforementioned lamb shank, our rugelach (second to none in New York), our coconut macaroons. And we actually grind and make our own gefilte — really!