You get more than you pay for with “The Dairy Restaurant”_ (Schocken), the recent book from award-winning graphic novelist Ben Katchor — the Forward’s former cartoonist, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, and a Guggenheim fellow.
While the book plumbs the history of Jewish dairy eateries — hundreds of which once dotted New York City — it also spends its 499 pages on kosher law, English pleasure gardens, 17th-century vegetarianism, Yiddish literature, German milk spas, Leo Tolstoy, proper udder-handling, fake meat, class conflicts, Yom Kippur riots, the milkhedike personality, and the Forverts, a character itself in Katchor’s cosmology of fressing.
If you’re facing an extended period of self-isolation, it’s a perfect read. Along with its physical heft, “The Dairy Restaurant” is philosophical and funny, authoritative and questioning, deeply Jewish and almost gleefully iconoclastic.
The creator of acclaimed alternative comic strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” and graphic novels like ‘The Cardboard Valise’, Upper West Side-based Katchor spoke to the Forward from coastal Connecticut, where he is sequestered for the foreseeable future.
Watch the video interview with Forward national editor Rob Eshman here, and read his conversation with Forward contributor Michael Kaminer below.
Is the book you ended up with the same book you started out to write?
I’d been thinking about dairy restaurants for a long time, but the only thing I had in mind was to play on text-image relationships. I knew the book had to resemble a telephone book or directory. And very early on, I knew a gigantic background, a mythology, was going to be part of it — the pastoral impulse, the milkhedike personality. But the balance was somewhat surprising. You don’t get to Jewish dairy restaurants until page 262. The book’s also my history. It’s what goes on in my head when I think about these places. I’m the kind of Jew who ruminates on why the world is the way it is.
The book reads as an elegy to these restaurants. Food aside, what’s been lost with their disappearance?
What’s been lost is the Jewish, and specifically Yiddish-speaking, working class, and the culture of the working class in New York. I kind of took that for granted growing up, when there were still those kinds of places.
There was also a lively socialist and Jewish-communist utopian impulse going on at these places. There was a politics to it. And it was a moment in restaurant culture where people decided restaurants didn’t have to have ethnic or national decor — it was plain utility. Clean tiles. Stainless steel. Formica counters. You could just wash them down. It was the aesthetic of the working class. The restaurant doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a utilitarian place to eat. You can still find that now in some working-class neighborhoods, but they’re more likely Dominican or Chinese.
What are your own memories of New York’s Jewish dairy restaurants?
Well, the dairy restaurant was always an alternative to meat-eating restaurants. There was a sense when you went in that you were leaving the competitive world of business and acquisitiveness. Maybe that just existed in my mind, since this is a totally subjective history. There was also a real sense of businesses on their last legs. I like that too. I like the atmosphere of giving up, business failure. The forlorn atmosphere, plus pretty good food, was a great combination.
Why has the Jewish deli hung on while Jewish dairy restaurants vanished?
The younger generation is not of the milkhedike mindset. The neo-conservative modern person wants the competitive atmosphere of a delicatessen. That’s why they were always more popular, always bustling. There are expressions in Yiddish — “make something fleishedik”. Make it official. Or “He just stayed in the dairy counter” - someone left behind. The world is not driven by the milkhedike personality.
The milkhedike personality plays a huge role in the book. How would you define it?
It’s the intellectual. The person for whom thought is more important than getting something done. It’s a very deeply Jewish thing to want to think things out, be very mindful of what you’re doing before you do it. The economy is driven by this urge to make things happen in the world.
Can you describe your drawing style in this book? It feels different from work like Julius Knipl or The Jew of New York.
I’m influenced by 18th-century neoclassical drawing. It’s line and wash, the most economical way to evoke light and form. Most of my comics take place in a fictitious world. This book was trying to be in this world. Julius Knipl was not set in New York City, but in a fictitious New York-type city. This book was very different for me. I don’t do a lot of documentary comics. There was the particularity of the real world in these drawings.
The level of detail in the book’s mythology is astounding. What was your research process like?
Oy. There’s not much written about this subject. You can’t go to the library and say, “I want to look up books on Jewish dairy restaurants,” because there are none. It had to be done in an oblique way - fiction, memoirs, old newspaper advertisements, printed ephemera I’ve been collecting on eBay for years. Also, there are no images of these places. There was a lot of reconstruction based on existing places. Somehow, I also got in touch with children whose parents worked in these restaurants. I included those interviews.
The book was put together over many years, but in very sporadic bits of work, by accretion. I’d look at a book about Milchhallen in Germany, then English pleasure gardens. You’d read this 500-page history, and find one page on something Jewish. That’s how it worked. I’m not a professional historian. The only reason this book could have happened is that I’m the only person interested in this subject.