In the late 1800s a saloon owner named Kate Hester purportedly defied Pittsburgh’s new licensing laws by running a secret establishment where locals in the know could drink and enjoy the company of friends and strangers. When the evening’s festivities got too loud — as the story goes — Hester would hush the crowd by saying “Speak easy, boys.” And from Hester’s saying, the term “speakeasy” was coined.
In early August, I received an email from the phantom of Kate Hester, inviting me to a dinner deep in Brooklyn. Intrigued, one Tuesday evening I followed the directions to a large purple Victorian home on a tree-lined street.
Walking into the house I was greeted by a bearded man wearing a yarmulke; he handed me a martini glass filled with watermelon-rosemary granita and vodka. As I moved past the foyer, I saw that the living room and dining room furniture had been pushed aside and the space filled with intimate tables, each dotted with a small vase of flowers.
During the evening, glasses of wine flowed and plates of elegant but simple seasonal fare, like roasted whole porgy with herbs and lemon, and patty pan squash stuffed with feta and figs, were served, while a jazz trio visiting from Argentina jammed in a corner.
The dinner, part of a kosher supper club called The Hester, was one of several Jewish meals I have attended recently in unexpected and often unmarked locations that were set up to host guests one night and were empty the next.
As at Hester’s Pittsburgh establishment, these meals often take place outside restaurants and skirt New York City’s alcohol, health and zoning laws. But for diners the experience is worth the risk.
These pop-ups, most of which launched within the past year, are serving some of the most exciting Jewish food in the country: authentic Iraqi soups, a Persian Shabbat feast and hummus as fresh and creamy as the heaping bowls sold at the famous Abu Hassan hummus shop in Jaffa. For their hosts, these projects are a way to explore and connect to their Jewish identity and love of food and community — often outside of their day jobs.