Book Review | ‘The Dairy Restaurant’ Details a Niche

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book cover
(Courtesy of Penguin Random House)

The Dairy Restaurant

Ben Katchor

Penguin Random House

Was the Garden of Eden the world’s first restaurant? Probably not, but the comparison offers an interesting juxtaposition that kicks off Ben Katchor’s “The Dairy Restaurant.”

Released on March 10, the book offers an overview of the evolution of Jewish dairy restaurants.

From Adam and Eve to New York City and everything in between, Katchor gives a meticulous retelling of the origins of Jewish dairy dietary restrictions and how those traditions play out in the modern restaurant scene.

The book is quite encompassing. Encyclopedic even. It literally opens at humanity’s start and details everything up to this point in regards to kosher dairy. You can’t get more thorough than that.

The opening does a great job of outlining the origins of kosher dairy restrictions and their various interpretations and implementation. As someone who doesn’t keep kosher, it was interesting to learn the nitty-gritty. Like a cheeseburger is an obvious no-go, but what about a cow’s udder? Now we’re asking the real questions.

There’s even a section on the proper way to milk goats and cows. As someone who had no exposure to kosher cuisine until about a year ago, I walked away with a newfound understanding and appreciation for kosher dairy.

Throughout the book, Katchor displays his one-of-a-kind way of looking at things from the Torah. Here’s an example:

“The angel Gabriel transformed the infant Abraham’s right hand into an all-purpose dispenser of food and drink. From his little finger the child could suck milk, from a second finger water, from a third honey, from a fourth the juice of dates, and from his thumb butter. This miracle is today re-created in the common bar-gun or soda-fountain console.”

Flavor bits like this make the rest of the text more palatable.

The overall writing is academic in tone and very much written from a Jewish perspective.

The book is a tough sell as an introduction into the subject matter.

If you’re new to the concept of kosher or aren’t familiar with Judaism in general, “The Dairy Restaurant” isn’t for you. This is a thorough and deep history dive written by and for a person who grew up with New York City’s dairy restaurant scene. This is most telling in the second half of the book, where Katchor details famous, historical and notable dairy restaurants from the NYC area. It’s nostalgic in that way, which may be lost on outsiders.

What stands out most at first glance are the gorgeous illustrations that frame each page. Katchor uses his artistic style prevalent in his famous “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” comic strip to add atmosphere to the text, virtually on all 500 pages.

The sheer number of drawings and their detail, in addition to the massive amount of research that had to be done, is impressive, to say the least.

The only critique of the art is that while it creates a nice feel for the text, it doesn’t seem essential. It’s the words that inform the art, as opposed to the other way around. Its absence wouldn’t alter the book’s meaning, and it would have been nice if they felt more integral. It’s clearly a want rather than a need.

“The Dairy Restaurant” is something that’s hard to recommend as a casual read, unless you’re the kind of person who’s really into the subject matter.

I don’t see this text making its way to the book club at the senior center, but it would be right at home in a college course on kosher practices or Judaism in general — or a great gift for your rabbi or rabbinical student.

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