From a Nickel to an Empire
Before the gut-busting eating contests and franchise stores across the country, there was a single man, Nathan Handwerker. An Eastern European Jewish immigrant who left the small provincial world he knew for a fresh start in America, Nathan arrived at Ellis Island speaking not a word of English, unable to read or write, and with twenty-five dollars hidden in his shoes. He had a simple goal: work hard and carve out a piece of the American dream. But history had bigger plans for Nathan.
Beginning in 1916, with just five feet of counter space on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue, Nathan sells his frankfurters for five cents. As New York booms, bringing trains and patrons to the seashore, so too does Nathan’s humble frankfurter stand. Soon Nathan’s Famous takes over the whole block, and Nathan gathers around him a dedicated core of workers (many who stay for decades) who help launch the hot dog as an American food staple.
Even as the business soars, Nathan remains fiercely loyal to what matters most: his customers, workers, and family. There’s Ida, the wife he fell in love with because no one could peel an onion faster; Sammy, the counterman who could serve an astonishing sixty franks per minute; and then there are the heirs to the empire, Murray and Sol, whose differing visions for the future lead to clashes with their eternally demanding father. Success brings difficulties, and as the two sons vie over control of the family business, a universal story of success and ambition plays out, mirroring the corporatization of the American food industry.
Written by Nathan’s own grandson, and at once a portrait of a man, a family, and the changing face of a nation through a century of promise and progress, Famous Nathan is a dog's tale that snaps and satisfies with every page.
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About the Author
Lloyd Handwerker is the grandson of Nathan Handwerker. He lives in New York and works as a documentary filmmaker.
GIL REAVILL is an author, screenwriter, and playwright. His work has been widely featured in magazines and he is the author of Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home. Reavill co-authored Beyond All Reason: My Life With Susan Smith and the screenplay that became the 2006 film Dirty, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. He lives in Westchester County, New York with his wife, Jean Zimmerman, and their daughter.
Read an Excerpt
A Family Saga of Coney Island, the American Dream, and the Search for the Perfect Hot Dog
By Lloyd Handwerker, Gil Reavill
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2016 Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill
All rights reserved.
IT WAS IN Galicia, Austria-occupied Poland, on June 14, 1892, that Nathan Handwerker had the misfortune to be born.
During the nineteenth century, Poland staggered under bullying assaults from the more powerful nations that surrounded it. The Three Powers — Russia, Germany, and Austria — sliced and diced the country with repeated partitions. The nation of Poland essentially ceased to exist as a sovereign entity.
The Austrian-annexed section of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth encompassed a hilly, hardscrabble region called Galicia. The area was so impoverished that "Galician misery" (bieda galicyjska) became a proverbial term. Historian Norman Davies nominated nineteenth-century Galicia as "the poorest province in Europe," its population in more desperate straits than that of Ireland at the start of the Great Famine.
Yaakov Handwerker and Reizel Gewissenheit — or Jacob, born in 1852, and Rose, born in 1869 — married in 1883, when the bride was just fourteen. Their third-oldest son, Nathan (in Yiddish, Nachum), would eventually take his place among thirteen siblings. The Handwerker name means "craftsman" or "artisan," a catch-all label that included Jacob's chosen profession of shoemaking.
Nathan's first name, family tradition has it, came from a good deed, a mitzvah, once performed by Jacob and Rose when they nursed an invalid named Nachum. His niece later suggested that this act of charity bestowed good luck on Nathan, leading to his success.
Jacob was slightly built, heavily bearded, and religiously observant. There were merchants in the family background. Jacob's uncle bought horses and shipped them to Russia, returning with tobacco for Austria. That was all in the past. No one had the money for horse-trading anymore. Jacob's shoemaking never yielded enough to support the family and for long periods provided nothing at all in the way of wages. Rose took care of the children and house, as well as bringing in a little money selling fruits and vegetables.
Their son Nathan came into the world in the Galician village of Narol, a shtetl of around five hundred people. When he was a week old, his mother brought him to join Jacob, who worked in the larger town of Jaroslaw. They remained there for three years before moving back to Narol.
Village or town, the family failed to thrive and in fact participated in its share of Galician misery. They were Ostjuden, eastern European Jews, and what one of the fathers of Yiddish literature, Mendele Moykher Sforim, called "kaptsonim," defined as "Jews without a cent to their name."
"My father couldn't make a living, so he had to go begging from town to town," Nathan said. "One time, in the wintertime, it was about forty below zero, and he came back to us for a couple of days. He never sent any money from the road, or very little, very little. We didn't have a lot to eat."
At the age of six, Nathan apprenticed to his father as a shoemaker. "They put me on the bench to teach me to make the shoes, sweep the floors, take apart old shoes, what's good to use, what's not good to use."
The family possessed a sewing machine, but young Nathan was not allowed to use it. "We paid a dollar a year, to pay it off. My older brother was learning to sew on the machine, and my father was learning too. My father learned to cut forms in any size he wanted. He took measures to make a pair of shoes. I never wanted to learn these things."
Jacob could read Hebrew texts but had no knowledge of math. Rose was illiterate. Apart from minimal training in Hebrew from ages three to six, Nathan would have no formal schooling at all. Poverty and family circumstances robbed the boy of the literacy that was increasingly a birthright for the European middle class.
The Handwerkers dwelled in a series of shtetlach, predominantly Jewish communities attached to larger, more ethnically mixed towns. Both Narol and Jaroslaw are now in southeastern Poland, near Ukraine, but in the pre-WWI period, they were located within the borders of the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary.
Shtetl living meant that Jews were set apart from and victimized by the Austrians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Russians, Roma, and Ukrainians who surrounded them. Galicia was also referred to as "Habsburg Poland," and it had a brutal pecking order. Austrians oppressed the Poles. The Poles ganged up on the Ukrainians. Everyone dumped on the Jews.
"The shadow of the Holocaust is long," writes author and shtetl historian Eva Hoffman, "and it extends backward as well as forward." The persecution of Jews during the pre-WWI period, in other words, gave way to the later systematic Nazi campaigns of murder, eradication, and obliteration, the genocide that effectively erased all trace of eastern European shtetlach.
Devoted religious practice represented a common refuge from the rampant discrimination of the culture. The Jews of the "Vistula provinces," between the Vistula River and the Bug, were known to be especially conservative. The Hasidic movement was born in Galicia and Western Ukraine. Jewish society in the area considered Torah-based study to be an honorable lifelong occupation and a paramount reason for any community to exist. Religious scholarship was a value shared by both "black-hat" and "hatless" Jews.
Jacob Handwerker was not alone, penniless and out on the road. There were plenty of others. In many quarters, poverty could be seen as an aspect of piety, especially if it was paired with rigorous application to the manifold mysteries of the Torah.
The Handwerker family always struggled with the bitter effort of wringing a few pennies out of an impoverished land. The most searing memory from Nathan's childhood was one of hunger.
"Once I looked to see a sugar cube sitting on a shelf. Everybody had forgotten about it. It was so covered in coal soot that it looked black. I quick put it into my mouth, anyway, so no one else should eat it," Nathan remembered vividly.
There was hunger and bone-chilling cold. When Nathan was ten, he took a journey with his father and second-oldest brother, Joseph. From Narol, they traveled to nearby Cieszanów and then onward to Jaroslaw. With produce piled high for the thirty-mile trip to the larger market town, Jacob allowed Nathan to ride in the wagon while he and Joseph walked beside. The temperature fell to below zero.
"They were afraid I should freeze," Nathan said, employing his usual Yiddish-inflected phrasing. "Every few minutes, my father came up to see if I'm not freezing."
Despite or perhaps because of the deadly cold, Nathan fell asleep while perched on the wagon. Jacob roused him and made him walk too. On winter journeys such as this one, the choices were simple. Walk or freeze, stay awake or die.
In the months after that trip, Nathan begged that he be allowed to accompany Jacob on his forays into the world beyond Narol in search of work.
"Take me along," eleven-year-old Nathan pleaded with his father. "I'll be able to get a job."
Jacob took Nathan to Radymno, a town of five thousand souls located just south of Jaroslaw. Father and son slept that night on benches in the local synagogue. For pillows, they used their boots, footwear that Jacob had made.
"When people came early in the morning to the synagogue, I had to get up," Nathan recalled. "So I said my morning prayers, and then we went around the town to give us to eat. We begged for money to eat. Nobody refused me."
Visiting a Radymno bakery, Jacob made inquiries to the wife of the baker. "Do you have a job for my boy?"
She did indeed have employment for Nathan, his first job outside the family. The woman loaded up a huge basket with loaves of challah, potato knishes, and kasha knishes, sending him out into the street to sell the goods. The young salesperson had soon hawked his whole inventory to passing townspeople.
When Jacob left for Jaroslaw, the baker asked Nathan to stay on as a permanent employee. They gave the boy a pallet to sleep on in the kitchen. Every morning, he set forth with a towering basket of baked goods. "Knischala!" he called. "Heys knischala!" Knishes, hot knishes! For each delivery, he earned an Austrian nickel, the smallest denomination of coin, the culture's equivalent of a penny.
After a week, Nathan turned lonely. He left the bakery without a word of explanation and headed on foot back to Narol. On the road, he had the good luck to run into Max, his best friend from his home village. The two of them frequently played together, ice-skating in the wintertime, heading into the woods, rolling down the hills, picking berries in the summertime.
"Max!" Nathan cried out. "Where were you?"
"I was in Radymno," the boy replied, explaining that he stayed there while he worked on a dairy farm near Jaroslaw.
"You were in Radymno? I was in Radymno the whole week! If I knew you were there, I would have had someone to talk to, and I wouldn't have left."
The two returned together, Nathan retracing his steps to the town he had just quit. Too ashamed to return to the original bakery, he found a job in another one. "I knew already in the bakery I had a lot to eat," Nathan recalled. Starvation serves as excellent motivation. At age eleven, the future restaurateur probably didn't realize he had stumbled on his path in life.
The new baker had a mother-in-law who was startled at the young hire's appetite. Nathan overheard her talking about him. "The boy is eating up all our bread!" The baker's wife soothed her mother's fears. "Don't worry, he's just a poor boy who's hungry. He'll stop eating soon."
He would stay in Radymno for two years. Bakers keep odd hours, and Nathan went to sleep on a cot in the bakery's kitchen every night at seven in the evening. At midnight, the baker would shake him awake for work.
"The baker gave me a big sifter, about two feet in diameter," Nathan recalled. "He used to put the flour in the shuffle, and I used to mix it. He mixed it up, too, because I had little hands, and I couldn't make such a big batch."
Nathan cut the risen dough into pieces. The baker shaped it and weighed each loaf. His young helper laid out the loaves in three or four lines on a long wooden table for a second rising. "When the dough started to raise up, the baker had the stove heated to put the bread in. He sat in a big chair so he could put his feet up. I had to hand over the loaves, a ten -pound basket at a time, and put the dough on the shovel, the wooden shovel. He shoved them in the oven."
It was an exhausting, repetitive business, and it lasted through the night. Nathan recalled sessions of sleepwalking during his back-and-forth trips with the dough and receiving a rude awakening. "By the time I took the basket, and I came back to the oven, from the table to the oven, I fell asleep. I touched the oven, it's hot, I woke up!"
After baking all night, the mornings were spent in delivery. "We had to put the bread in big ten-pound baskets, twenty or thirty baskets at a time. We had a long wagon that had one wheel in the front and two handles in the back. The handles had a strap to help you push. I pulled the strap on my shoulders, and the baker loaded up the wagon."
Nathan delivered to a baked-goods store located in the railway station in the middle of town. "It was a big walk," he recalled. He was too small to push the wagon up one of the hills. He had to unload, transfer the bread into a basket, and balance the basket on top of his head. Mid-hill, his strength would give out.
"I had small hands, I was eleven years old, I was tired. I remember there was a fence on one side of the road that was about the same height with me. I had to put the basket down to rest a little. I propped it on the fence and held it so it wouldn't turn over."
On the other side of the fence was an encampment of soldiers. He spent a long moment watching them, assessing the muddy misery of army life. The sight impressed itself upon his young mind. Then he struggled to heft the huge basket of bread.
"I put my head under it again and went on."
* * *
After two years toiling at the bakery in Radymno, separated from his family in Narol, the now-thirteen-year-old Handwerker son prepared for a visit home. He had just started his bar mitzvah lessons at the local synagogue. The bakery closed for Passover, since the business was not allowed to bake bread during the holy days.
"I'm going home for vacation," the young baker's assistant announced to his employers. But he did not want to return to Narol empty-handed. During his two years of work, he put aside his pay groschen by groschen, penny by penny. At the end of that time, he had amassed twelve Austrian-Hungarian kronen, a little over two U.S. dollars at contemporary exchange rates.
"I took the money that I saved, and I run to the butcher shop in Radymno. I showed them how much money I got. I say, 'I'm going home to Narol. There's not much good meat to eat there.'"
The farmers of Radymno had the reputation of raising the finest beef cattle in Galicia. "They fed their cows with cooked food, nothing raw," Nathan explained. "And that was the best meat in the whole country." The beef was, of course, slaughtered in accordance with Jewish dietary strictures.
Young Nathan asked what he could get for the money he had saved. The butcher put the precious Radymno beef in wrapping paper, and the prodigal son headed home to Narol. To travel quickly, in order that the meat wouldn't spoil, he rode rather than walked. "I paid, like a taxi driver, but instead of taxi, a horse and wagon," he recalled.
Rose Handwerker, Nathan's mother, kept a strict kosher home. "Everything was already kosher, kosher made. They used to heat up bricks, make them hot, burning hot, and with pliers, you take them and the table should be made kosher by that." When Nathan arrived into the bosom of family with his package of kosher meat, he knew that he could place his prize on the household table with perfect assurance.
"So I see the table is clean, so I take the sack, take it up, and take it out and put it on the table, and say to my mother, 'Now you give the children to eat, here.'" Rose was overjoyed to see him, and Nathan's little brothers and sisters were happy to see the miracle of beef appearing before them.
Beyond the heartwarming homecoming, there is a hint here of the future of Nathan Handwerker. Even as a thirteen-year-old boy, he was aware of the importance of quality. He didn't go to any butcher; he went to what he knew was the best butcher in town. He didn't bring his family run -of-the-mill meat; he brought them Radymno beef. The boy in the story would grow up to be a man who was fanatical about ensuring the quality of everything he sold.
There is other prescient evidence, other inklings that fate was shadowing Nathan's path forward. Poland was (and still is) the land of the sausage. The Handwerkers were too poor to include a lot of meat in their diet, and much of the local product was pork based and thus trayf. Though the family cupboard might have been a bit bare, nevertheless, the area in which the Handwerkers lived had rich and varied culinary traditions. The ethnic foodways were intermingled to the degree that even today, dietary historians can't be certain whether classic chicken soup originated as a Jewish dish or a Polish one.
Kraków spread its influence throughout the region and, eventually, throughout the world. A famous dish associated with the city, duck cooked with mushrooms and buckwheat groats, would have been beyond the family budget of a poor shtetl shoemaker. But during his time at the Radymno bakery, Nathan must have turned out baked items also closely linked to Kraków, including jam-filled rolls called buchts and a yeasted wheat creation very similar to a bagel but referred to in the area as a "pretzel." In fact, Kraków and thus Galicia has been commonly credited with the origin of the bagel, known originally as the bajgiel and traditionally given to women during childbirth.
And sausage? "The intestine is endless" went the old Polish saying, and Poles used pig, sheep, and cow intestines as casings for a dizzying number of kielbasas and wursts, stuffed with smoked, cured, chopped, fermented, minced, or ground meats from all manner of animal and plant product, spiced with all manner of ingredients, including salt, garlic, pepper, milk, caraway, nutmeg, coriander, allspice, marjoram, cumin, juniper, sugar, lemon, bacon, and lard.
Each locality had its specialty. Kraków was associated with a wonderful dry sausage, Krakowska sucha, hot smoked, dense, and shot through with such spices as coriander, allspice, cumin, and garlic. "Kielbasa" was merely the Polish word for sausage, and the version most closely linked with Galicia is Kielbasa lisiecka. Coarsely ground from lean, heavily salted pork, the cured meat was spiced with pepper and garlic. In a time-honored method, butchers cased the mixture and had the links looped on sticks to be hot smoked over hardwood fires.
Excerpted from Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker, Gil Reavill. Copyright © 2016 Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Tenth Ward,
The Family (1),
The Family (2),
Growing Up Coney,
The Prodigal Sons Return,
Lion in Winter,
About the Author,