- “Eatmor Dairy”: Ben Katchor’s Genealogy of the Dairy Restaurant
For Jews of a certain age who grew up in New York during the tail end of its Jewish gastronomic heyday—in my experience, the late 1950s through the ’70s—and who dream of sizzling potato pirogen and the aroma of gorgeous cheese blintzes surrounded by generous dollops of pillow-smooth sour cream, the graphic artist Ben Katchor’s deeply personal, exhaustively researched cultural history, The Dairy Restaurant, is required reading and viewing.
Fans of Katchor’s brilliant graphic archive (his achievement was recognized by a MacArthur “genius” award in 2000) have been hungering for The Dairy Restaurant to appear since the volume was announced about fifteen years ago. Katchor’s was among the first titles listed in the inaugural Nextbook Jewish Encounters Series, guided by Jonathan Rosen, a publishing venture devoted to re-thinking the range of Jewish cultural history by inviting well-known scholars and artists to explore a particular area or historical figure of their own choosing. After years of Katchor’s rummaging the archives and ruminating over the rich history of the dairy restaurant, his Jewish Encounters volume has, at last, arrived. In the words of fellow cartoonist Mark Newgarden, The Dairy Restaurant amounts to “a bountiful steam-table of history, myth, religion, biography [and autobiography], sociology, linguistics, hard data, speculation, obsession, digression, confession, eyewitness recollection and imagination” (Katchor 2020b).
A Brooklyn-born walker in the city, Katchor’s Jewish soul vibrates in solidarity with New York’s early and mid-twentieth-century luftmenschen, its tribe of [End Page 195] traveling Jews who somehow survived on the margins, doing business. Above all, Katchor is obsessed with the residues, the remnants of urban life on the threshold of vanishing. “I’m fascinated,” he explained in a 2004 interview, “by watching people disappear from the scene” (2004).
A Katchor strip is immediately recognizable. Drawn in various shades of grey wash, it captures the surreal edges of the city, revealing fantastic liminal spaces inhabited by forlorn, unmoored Jewish souls, barely hanging on. Like his most famous graphic invention, the real estate photographer Julius Knipl, Katchor peers into every shadowy crevice, his eye tracking the ephemeral, quirky zones of city life, absorbing what he terms “the pleasures of urban decay.” The critic Anthony Grafton observes, Katchor “teach[es] us to see with new eyes the fragments of an older New York” (2001). “Most of New York is in my memory,” Katchor has acknowledged. Resisting the pull of nostalgia, Katchor confesses that he “has no yearning to live in the past”; he has no desire to return to a sepia-toned New York saturated with the sounds and smells of early twentieth-century East European immigrant Jews because, he claims, “The layers of history I see walking the streets of Manhattan are deep enough” (2004). Katchor’s subject, his structure of feeling, is thus the city’s subterranean history. Jewish memory flows through him; his assignment is to channel New York’s Jewish spirit, to convey, in words and drawings, its yiddishe tam: its taste, its flavors.
To understand the largest cultural meanings encoded in the dairy restaurant’s genealogy, Katchor begins in the beginning (so to speak), in the “vegetarian-based,” pastoral Garden of Eden, “a defunct eating place that one can only know from memory” (25). Katchor mavens will no doubt recall his wry allusions to the paradisaical origins of a dairy world drawn in previous strips. For example, walking the city, Knipl comes upon the “Garden of Eden Cafeteria.” This ur-dairy emporium should not be confused with the legendary Garden Cafeteria (closed 1983) on the corner of Rutgers Street and East Broadway, where I. B. Singer always ordered the rice pudding (65 cents, according to the menu Katchor reproduces) and whose iconic sign is now embedded within the interior walls of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. An ad for “Golden Calf Brand Pot Cheese” appears in another panel.1 Perhaps it’s a potential (if hilariously ironic) menu item for one of the future milkhedike (milk-based) eateries along Second Avenue; or, possibly, it is Katchor...