As early as the turn of the 20th century, East-European Jewish immigrants began traveling north from New York City to vacation and escape the summer heat in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
But it was after WWII in the 1940s and 50s that this influx reached it’s peak when over 500 hotels as well as bungalow colonies, and less expensive lodgings with small kitchens called kuchalyeyns opened to welcome summer guests.
Among the larger and well-known hotels were the legendary Grossingers, Browns, Kutchers and the Neville, all catering to Jewish clientele – who were not always welcome at resorts elsewhere. In addition to kosher food, some of these Catskill hotels held sabbath and holiday services for their guests, and in their heyday the Catskills were known as the “Borscht Belt” or the “Jewish Alps”. Many well-known musicians, singers and comedians of the time got their start performing for the guests at these Catskill resorts.
Lesser known was my grandmother Esther’s small family inn in the town of Liberty, NY. But with Esther running the kitchen, the meals there rivaled those at any of the grander hotels. My grandmother and her staff turned out the most delicious Jewish comfort foods – stuffed cabbage, gefilte fish, brisket, cholent (a stew that simmers for hours), chicken fricassee, kugel (a casserole made with noodles), kasha varnishkes (another noodle dish, my favorite!), wonderful soups (including of course cold borscht and chicken soup with matzoh balls), latkes (potato pancakes), matzoh brie (a version of French toast made with matzoh), blintz (Jewish crepes!), fruit compotes, strudels, poppy seed cookies, and other heavenly desserts. And unforgettable was my grandmother’s chopped liver often served as a forshpeiz (appetizer).
As a child I spent summers at the hotel, my mother ran the office, and my father came up from the city on the weekends. (See My Heart Remembers My Grandmother’s Hotel, My Game Mother, The Troubadour) and Playing with Fire)
We would bring our cat Smokey with us and every summer she’d enjoy the fresh mountain air, catch many unlucky country mice, and once even delivered a litter of kittens in one rather irate hotel guest’s closet – but that’s another story!
Actually Smokey was also once responsible for a near catastrophe in the dining room.
Food at the hotel was served family style, and one evening the tables were each set with a platter of chopped liver in the middle. Before every meal my grandmother would survey the dining room to see that the waiters had set up properly, and then she would go out on the porch and ring a big brass bell to call the guests in to eat.
But that evening as she looked around the room she spotted Smokey jumping from table to table sampling the forshpeiz. Always unflappable, she shooed the cat away and walked around the dining room patting down the mound of chopped liver on every table.
Then my grandmother went out on the porch and rang the dinner bell.
Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!
Dana, I am familiar with all of the Jewish comfort foods you described. Many were made with schmaltz, which no doubt clogged my arteries for years. The story of Smokey and your grandmother was priceless. I had a big laugh, and I’m sure everyone still enjoyed the forshpeiz.
Thanx Laurie, I guess comfort foods are not necessarily the healthiest of foods, are they!
This reminds me of a Christmas dinner at a relative’s house where we entered the dining room to find our Greyhound standing on the table sampling the stuffing. She seemed surprised at our objections. Only my wife and I saw, so we did the same as your Grandmother!
Naughty doggie and wise decision, Dave!
As for your host and the other dinner guests – ignorance is bliss!
That cat picture is hilarious. Your grandmother was a treasure. What a wonderful tour of those times in the Catskills, and all those delicious foods so rich in history. I really enjoyed this story.
Too funny, Dana. I would have done the same thing!
Good Suzy, me too!
Oh, man, remind me to inspect the chopped liver closely in the future, Dana. Love the rundown on the types of food, since I well remember the Catskills. Even as a relatively slender teenager, I couldn’t keep up with the amount of food served in those hotels. A very fun recollection.
Yes indeed Mare, good food and comforting, but usually too darn much!
Hysterical, Dana. Your grandmother was unflappable. Glad she reshaped the chopped liver and didn’t kill your cat. I, too, know of all the foods mentioned (though my mother didn’t cook any of it – she barely cooked). My mother-in-law cooked some of it, including wonderful chopped liver. My mouth is watering even now, thinking of it.
Thanx Betsy, chopped liver really is delish – would be great on Laurie’s challah!