Nosh & Nostalgia

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Archival photographs courtesy of The Catskills Institute at Brown University


Will Kutsher’s revive a tradition or sing its swan song?


{xtypo_dropcap}I{/xtypo_dropcap}t is the first night of Passover at Kutsher’s, a resort in the Catskill Mountains of Sullivan County. Guests are gathering in the lobby and in the hallways, waiting for the Seder, the ritual holiday meal, to begin.

While there is a handful of young families, the majority of the people are in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. They advance toward the dining room on canes, on walkers and in wheelchairs, greeting each other with “Gut yontof ! ” (Yiddish for “Happy holiday!”) The scene plays like a time warp: for these senior citizens dress as they and their predecessors did almost a half-century ago, men in polyester suits and women in evening gowns crowned by architecturally high hair. Many still chatter in the clipped accents of their Eastern European upbringing. Both the guests and the building show their age.

Molly Nogue sits in the lobby, dressed for the occasion in a black and- white flowered dress, brown orthopedic shoes and a white lace prayer shawl on her gray head. A resident of the Bronx, Nogue has been coming to Kutsher’s for 30 years. The deterioration of the hotel is dismaying, she says, but the evening ahead holds numerous pleasures. One especially. For Kutsher’s still serves the traditional meals that helped fuel their legend a half-century ago.

“The food,” Molly Nogue says, “is very good—always!”

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She and the others are a disappearing generation, and they have gathered at an appropriate place, for Kutsher’s in Monticello is the last Jewish vacation resort in the southern Catskill Mountains. This region once was home to more than one thousand such vacations spots, which sprawled along an area encompassing 250 square miles. This was largely a 20th-century retreat for a people seeking respite from American anti-Semitism, or a place to find fellow survivors of the Holocaust—as well as an alternative to other Catskill resorts that patently excluded Jews.

As important as the camaraderie in these resorts was the food. For good reason, this confluence of Jewish hotels was dubbed “the Borscht Belt,” referring to the traditional beet soup that was a mainstay of Ashkenazi (Polish and Russian) Jewish cuisine. (The label, waggishly coined by Variety editor Abel Green, caught on, while nicknames like “Derma Road” and “Sour Cream Sierras” did not.) Like the fabled Promised Land of the Bible, which was “flowing with milk and honey,” Borscht Belt hotels offered gastronomic sustenance. Here, consistent with the old joke referenced in the opening of Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, where two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” and the other replies, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions,” patrons would, time and time again, return to complain about the quality of the food—as well as the small portions—but would nonetheless eat, eat, eat with abandon.

Wines from nearby vineyards accompanied the meals, nurturing a wine industry whose bottlers included several kosher winemakers. These businesses would thrive during Passover, a holiday marked by ritualistic wine drinking. Most are gone. One of the few survivors, Armon Kosher Winery in Monticello, was lost to fire this past January.

The Chosen Spot for the Chosen People

This network of lavish hotels and bungalow colonies started with farmhouses. Jewish immigrants who had tilled the land in the old country arrived here in the 1890s to continue their agrarian lives. Not all were successful. To make ends meet, they took on boarders, feeding them from the bounty of their own backyards: chickens, fruits and vegetables. They served what they knew: Ashkenazi recipes.

The most successful of these operations was started in 1914 by the Grossinger family. According to Sullivan County historian John Conway, their first year of business was promising: nine guests brought an income of $81. Grossinger’s would eventually become one of the most celebrated hotels of the Borscht Belt, locked in competition with the Concord on Kiamesha Lake and the Raleigh in South Fallsburg. Hundreds more of varying sizes sprang up over the decades, each advertising kosher cuisine with the discreet slogan, “Dietary laws observed.”

By the 1930s, the Catskills were home to many hotels where Jews of varying incomes could come to enjoy their religious and social culture without molestation or rebuke. (Ku Klux Klan members also inhabited this area and would inflict beatings on Jews as well as African Americans.) Elegance was the byword of these establishments. Guests would dress in their finest for Friday and Saturday night dinners, the men in suits and the women in evening gowns accented by white gloves. If they cared to make bigger statements about their social standing, they would withdraw their jewels and furs from the hotel vaults and ornament themselves accordingly. They, as was the fashion in the finer establishments of the day, were warmly greeted at the dining room by a maître d’ in a tuxedo.

Phil Brown is a former Catskill resort waiter who has written several essays and books about Catskill life. He maintains Brown University’s Catskill Institute, an expansive archive of documents, memorabilia and oral histories that chronicle Jewish life in the Catskills. Food was a primary component of the luxury offered at these resorts, he says.

“Even if they weren’t hungry, there’s something very big about this whole dining room where they announced the meals and they walk you in there sometimes with a band playing, and they have endless courses.”

Worries Go Down Better With Soup

Menus would vary from hotel to hotel, but not erratically. The bill of fare was evenly divided among American and Eastern European cuisine, Brown says. Some items, like the bagel, lox and cream cheese breakfast, have entered mainstream popularity. But many lunch and dinner items remain familiar mostly to Jews of the Depression and World War II era. Mainstays included flanken (an inexpensive cut of boiled steak), roasted chicken and the Jewish cultural mainstay, brisket.

Other constants included kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats and pasta, often topped with mushroom gravy), chopped liver, and herring. (At the upscale Concord, guests could savor herring in five styles: in schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), baked, fried, pickled with cream sauce or pickled with onion rings.) Virtually unknown to non-Jewish palates were such peasant food staples as gefilte fish, a pike fish in aspic, a sorrel and potato soup called schav, a long-simmering beef stew called cholent and the omnipresent borscht.

Feeding guests was a monumental task. In her 1975 memoir, Growing Up at Grossinger’s, Tania Grossinger includes the menu for a typical week at the resort during the 1950s. Included are: 300 standing ribs of beef, 1,000 pounds of poultry, 27,000 eggs, 1,000 pounds of potatoes, 500 pounds of Nova Scotia lox, 70 cases oforanges, 700 pounds of coffee, and the hotel bakery’s output of 4,600 rolls and 4,600 mini-Danish.

Adherence to kosher laws was dutifully maintained, meaning meat dishes could not contain or be served with any dairy products. To any ambitious chef, this proved a challenge: There could be no cream sauces for meat or chicken. Margarine was used liberally, but it was a pallid substitute for butter. Seafood and pork were verboten. Chefs making meat dishes had to make do with rib steak, as the softer sirloin from the cow’s hindquarters was considered unclean.

“I don’t think [Catskills chefs] were really advancing culinary culture a whole lot,” says Phil Brown. By the 1960s, there was some relief for chefs: nondairy creamers substituted for dairy products and kosherapproved soy products mimicked pork and bacon to tolerable results.

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This culinary heritage may have comforted people of a certain age, but the next generation possessed more finicky taste buds. New Yorker Steve Kolodny, who summered in the Catskills as a teen in the 1960s, describes the bill of fare: “Overcooked, poorly spiced, oversauced, underflavored. This was food for people who ate to live, and did not live to eat. My father, who went through the camps in Stalinist Russia, said that he never had a meal he did not like. Catskill food was geared for his palate.”

Phil Brown acknowledges that Catskill Jewish cuisine was often too fatty and too salty. “There is a lot of truth to that. But a lot of it was good. For a lot of people, it was better food than they might be used to eating at home.” In an era before concerns about adult-onset diabetes and hypertension, this was living.

Any discussion about Catskill cuisine eventually focuses on its sheer abundance. Irwin Richman, author of several books including Catskills Hotels (2003) and Memories of Catskill Summers (1998), says that guests were there not merely to eat, but to fress, a Yiddish word meaning to stuff one’s self. “The resorts were all devoted to the concept that more is better.”

Food was ubiquitous—and not only in the dining rooms. Many resorts offered poolside buffets, a snack at the pro shop after a round on the links, as well as meals after evening entertainment. One could enjoy a late-night snack at the coffee shop, which usually dispensed with kosher laws and served cheeseburgers and milkshakes.

Whether it was a reaction to earlier experiences with hunger and poverty or a confirmation of their new social status, for many Jews from the 1920s through the ’50s “the whole concept of going to a resort was that you were going to get your money’s worth out of it and that eating was absolutely the essential part of it,” says Richman. Phil Brown agrees, in his 1998 memoir Catskills Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area he states, “There was much pleasure, but also greed. A goodly number of guests tried to take advantage of the owners, typically by eating as much as they could.”

“Eating was done on an almost continuous basis—breakfast around 8:00, coffee and maybe a piece of cake or toasted bagel around 10:30, lunch at 12:30, fruit, coffee and cake in the mid-afternoon, dinner around 6:30. Then after card playing and other evening activities, some herring, more cake, a little of this and that around 11:00, just before bed.”

Mimi Sheraton (former NY Times Food Critic) From My Mother’s Kitchen, 1979 (page 243)

“They came from a tradition of not having enough—whether in Eastern Europe or in New York. In The Catskills, they could order all they wanted, even if they didn’t finish the serving.”

In It Happened in the Catskills, a 1991 oral history, Ernie Haring, a 1930’s Grossinger’s busboy, recalls, “Even more than the food itself, it was the elegance of being served. The elegance of asking for doubles, even if not eating it. Even if just tasting it and saying ‘nah’.” Tania Grossinger, who held various jobs at the hotel, from babysitter to tour guide, balks at the assessment.

“Was food important? Of course. Did they stand in line to make sure they got [to the dining room] first? Absolutely.” But the clientele at Grossinger’s, she says, “was a more sophisticated clientele.” “They didn’t make pigs of themselves,” she says. “They didn’t go to stuff face.” But even if a guest demonstrated restraint, waiters were instructed to test their resolve with a relentless array of temptations. Between 1964 and 1971, Myron Gittel was a waiter at the top resorts, including the Concord, Kutsher’s, Grossinger’s and the Raleigh. “The ethos” of the resorts, he recalls, was “to give them as much as they want and whatever they want.”

“That’s what [they] were known for: food and more food. Not gourmet, necessarily, but the stuff they knew and wanted.”

Gittel remembers the routine: After bringing appetizers, he would return with a main dish meant as an extra appetizer for the table. “[We] would fill that table, so that you did not see the tablecloth.” Despite such overkill, Gittel adds, diners still found reasons to complain when they felt shortchanged on the challah or were not served quickly enough.

He recalls many a guest ordering dishes in painstaking detail, listing ailments or personal preferences that required specific food preparations.

“A Gentile orders food,” Gittel says. “With a Jew, it’s a story.” “A lot of the waiters who were really successful were charismatic, a little bit kooky, were fun-loving, a little meshuga [crazy],” says Patti Posner, a third-generation family member who ran the kitchen at Hotel Brickman from 1976 to 1986, serving nearly 700 people three times a day. “You had to know how to charm people: ‘Mrs. Schwartz, you look lovely today!’”

Grossinger’s arguably made the greatest inroads into mainstream American life. The matriarch of the empire, Jennie, licensed her rye bread recipe commercially, and loaves were sold in selected markets across the country. She also wrote The Art of Jewish Cooking.

The End of an Era Served Up With A Side of Ham

But even this prominent establishment felt the shift in its fortunes by the 1960s. The jet age had arrived and people were freed from vacationing only as far as they could drive. American Jews had become assimilated and were less keen on frequenting places that reaffirmed their outsider status. Catskill resorts began to become “less Jewish,” a trend reflected in its menu. In 1964, Grossinger’s changed “gefilte fish” to “stuffed freshwater fish with beet horseradish.” Other name changes reflected an American fascination with French cuisine. Chicken soup became consommé, albeit still offered with a matzo ball.

As smaller resorts began shuttering, the remaining ones fought for their lives. Starting in the 1970s, a few resorts began offering treyf (nonkosher) dishes. The Laurels, once the largest hotel in Sullivan County, became the first kosher hotel to advertise lobster on the menu, says historian John Conway. Chait’s in Kerhonkson, long known as an “arty” place for counterculture people, added ham to its menu, an act of defiance in line with their iconoclastic reputation. Others quietly made the transition to relaxing dietary laws, signaling the change in advertising by offering “kosher style” fare.

“It’s when things get desperate that you change,” says Irwin Richman. “You’re not going to change a winning formula.” But for the most part, says Phil Brown, resorts stuck to kosher food, “because it was a badge of tradition, not even a badge of religion.”

Another challenge to Borscht Belt resorts was the rising trend in American dieting. During the 1970s, as Stefan Kanfer observes in his 1989 sociocultural history A Summer World, “underweight was in, and the famous Catskill menus came to be regarded as unhealthy.” The stratagem could only slow the inevitable dissolution of the Borscht Belt. By the late 1980s, smaller resorts were purchased by Lubavitch and Satmar Hasidic sects for private use. Others became ashrams and yoga retreats, drug rehabilitation retreats.

While Jewish resort food never made an appreciable impact on mainstream American cuisine, Irwin Richman cites its visible legacy in Carnival Cruise Lines, founded by Israeli Jews. Their method of serving expansive meals is clearly modeled on the old Catskill hotels. “It’s a floating Concord.”

Back to the Future

Passover services are beginning at Kutsher’s. But the more frail guests have bypassed the synagogue area and linger outside the dining room, which has just finished an early Seder for children.

Bruce Aymes, who has been Kutsher’s maître d’, for 30 years, greets the early arrivals and invites them to find their designated tables, all reserved for the expected crowd of 600. The easy part of waiting on veteran guests, he says, is being able to anticipate their culinary needs, for their idiosyncrasies and tastes do not change.

Yet this volatile demographic—elderly guests whose numbers are dwindling every year—will not keep Kutsher’s operating forever. How long will the last Jewish resort keep its doors open? Aymes acknowledges that a younger generation of Jewish tourists is looking beyond the Catskills for their idea of a good time.

Mickey Montal, working with business partner Yossi Zablocki, demonstrates a fierce optimism; he pledges to keep Kutsher’s alive as long as he can. He likens the enterprise to Kellerman’s Resort, the raucous Borscht Belt hotel in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing.

But Montal is a realist. He has seen this region evolve from a landscape of sold-out hotels, buzzing every summer with activity, to its current state, where Kutsher’s is the last place standing. Montal refers to the film’s final scene. Summer is ending and there is ample evidence that Kellerman’s may fall victim to changing times. “The kids today, they want to go to Europe, they want five cities in one day,” he says. “Nobody’s going to come back here to learn how to dance or to spend a summer just at the lake.”

He explains his guiding philosophy toward his oddly endearing retro-Jewish theme park. Last year he received a phone call from an accomplished Manhattan restaurateur. The man was considering a stay at Kutsher’s. Montal warned him of unreasonable expectations, “If you’re looking for the Ritz or the Hilton, this place is not for you. If you’re looking for nostalgia, you’ll have the time of your life.” Montal allows himself some wishful thinking. “Maybe the next generation will want to come back.” For now, Montal will cater to the people who share his love of a bygone era, which he works mightily to keep alive. “The main thing is give them what they want, and a little more. That’s the trick.“ And giving them food from the past is key to its success.

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