What is a charlotte russe? It’s a Jewish dessert that fell by the wayside. It’s a forgotten piece of Jewish culture.
As Leah Koenig wrote for Politico, “Eighteenth-century European aristocrats knew Charlotte Russe as a cake made of ladyfingers pressed into an elegant mold, filled with thick custard or Bavarian cream, and flavored with cooked fruit, spices or brandy.”
But by the time the Charlotte Russe had emigrated to New York it was done being fancy. Now it was a sponge cake with whipped cream, topped with a blood red cherry. It was mainly sold by Jewish bakeries, candy stores and street vendors.
“I remember the charlotte russe,” one of the attendees of the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish Festival told me. “It was what you served after a fancy meal.” It was a dish a Jewish immigrant might use to prove their claim to high-class epicureanism. Yet now it seems to have fallen by the wayside, a whipped cream New York Jewish icon that is no longer what it used to be.
But now it’s coming back. At the Taste Of Jewish Culture Yiddish Street Festival put on by the Workmen’s Circle, the charlotte russe came back in a big way, in front of teeming crowds of interested tourists, fans of the Workmen’s Circle and Jews looking for a taste of their heritage.
“We ate one-of-a-kind food dishes, danced all day to live klezmer, learned a bisl Yiddish and shared our rich heritage with friends and neighbors from all over NYC and the world,” said Ann Toback, executive director, Workmen’s Circle.
The theme was Diversity is Delicious, which “is certainly meant to be a political statement,” Toback told me. The Workmen’s Circle is committed to keeping US borders open, and the theme was meant to be a reflection of that.
As crowds of thousands milled around, savoring their charlotte russes and enjoying their culture crossing Reuben quesadillas, Jewish food culture re-emerged into the mainstream, alive and well, as though it had never been in danger of being forgotten.
Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org