A few weeks ago, I got a text from my aunt: “Have you. He led out Pulkies at 428 w 16th Street?” Luckily, I speak iMessage autocorrect. She led me to some of the best Jewish food I’ve ever had.
When most people hear Jewish food, they probably think of delis, like Katz’s from When Harry Met Sally: monstrously tall pastrami sandwiches accompanied by giant pickles. Or maybe, if they’ve been to one of our many holiday dinners, they think of fluffy matzo ball soup, or round loaves of challah, or crunchy potato latkes.
Pulkie’s is creating something entirely new: Jewish BBQ. The term might seem heretical to just about everyone, from rabbis to pitmasters, but chef Harris Mayer-Selinger is resolute in his bold venture. And, it being the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah—I thought it was the perfect opportunity to try something different.
I caught Mayer-Selinger on the phone in mid-September as he was on his way to his own Rosh Hashanah dinner. He had been up until 8 am that morning prepping holiday pick-up orders, which had cascaded in following a positive New Yorker review. “Baruch Hashem,” he told me. “I’ve never been more grateful in my life.”
Mayer-Selinger usually manages the burger joint Creamline in New York’s tourist magnet Chelsea Market. Burgers aren’t an ideal delivery food, though, and Manhattan lost its predictable crowds during Covid. He was at a loss for what to do, until his business partner came to him with an idea for a Jewish deli. Mayer-Selinger wanted nothing to do with a deli, but he liked the sound of the name his partner’s wife had come up with: Pulkies, which means drumstick in Yiddish, referring either to poultry, or more commonly, a baby. Mayer-Selinger had what he described as a cliched 30 second eureka moment. “I just had this connection,” he said. “Turkey, Jews, brisket. Texas BBQ does turkey and brisket—what about Jewish-style BBQ.”
He put together the menu over the next hour. After that, the entire concept came together in six weeks, when they fully converted their Creamline kitchen into a Pulkies delivery operation.
So what, exactly, is Jewish BBQ?
Mayer-Selinger is the first to tell you that he’s not making American BBQ, which strictly adheres to the gospel of indirect heat, wood, and smoke. Instead, he’s drawing from a broader, more global tradition of BBQ, like Korean or Pakistani or Mongolian BBQ—where meat is the focal point surrounded by beloved, homestyle dishes.
As he reasoned in his initial epiphany, there is still some connection to American BBQ. Turkey and brisket, after all, are quintessential American BBQ dishes, just as they are quintessential Ashkenazi Jewish dishes. “I’m Jewish and I’m American,” he told me, “So I’m really happy to enter something into the BBQ universe.”
And again, people might have no idea what Jewish food is, let alone Ashkenazi Jewish food (which is the population from Eastern Europe). For Mayer-Selinger, though, that’s the point. Jews are a tiny percentage of the world population—just under 15 million strong—and have been cast over the globe through diaspora.
“I don’t think Jewish food has a voice, let alone a definition,” he said, “It’s almost as hard to define as American food.” Pulkies, then, is something deeply personal for him: an opportunity to show pride in his ethnicity, his culture, and his identity. And above all else, it reflects the food that he loves.
Brisket is one of those dishes. It’s the centerpiece of every Ashkenazi Jewish holiday. Unlike Texas BBQ, Jewish brisket is slow braised for hours, usually in some cherished combination: wine, seltzer, coca cola, ketchup, root vegetables, prunes, apricots, you name it.
Mayer-Selinger adds a chef’s touch to his approach. He was buying his meat from a local farm, and the price point meant that he couldn’t waste a scrap. Brisket comes with a healthy fat cap, and he experimented with rendering it down. After roasting the brisket, he confits it in its own fat, which creates a bark and smokey flavor, not dissimilar to Texas BBQ.
Turkey All Year
The star of Pulkies, though, is the namesake dish: the turkey. While I greeted this skeptically—the victim of far too many dry birds and subpar cold cut sandwiches—he stood his ground.
“As a proud American and a proud American cook, I just have always loved turkey,” he told me. “Everytime I have dark meat turkey—and of course I’m a dark meat guy—I’m just like, this is such a delicious bird. Why don’t I eat it all year?”
Mayer-Selinger asserts that most home chefs commit two cardinal sins: they transfer the turkey directly from the fridge to the oven without letting it come to room temperature first, and they treat the legs the same as the breasts. Pulkies, on the other hand, handle their turkeys with love. They render the skin, they use necks for broth, they braise the legs, they roast the breasts, they make chopped liver. They utilize every last piece.
I found myself nodding along with everything Mayer-Selinger was saying. Rosh Hashanah is a time for family and, of course, for eating. For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent it at my aunt’s house—the one who sent me that fateful text. This year, though, I was stuck in New York. I’d been thinking about what the holidays meant without the actual gathering—how we could maintain tradition in this strange time.
Sharing a Feast
Like Mayer-Selinger, food has always been the way that I experience and interpret the world around me. I decided that sharing a feast from Pulkies with my girlfriend was as good a way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah as any. They don’t deliver all the way to Brooklyn, so I had to trek all the way to Manhattan, which is basically like crossing state lines during the pandemic.
I rode the empty subway to Chelsea Market, astonished by how empty the streets were on a clear autumn Saturday. At first, I couldn’t even figure out how to enter the city-block-sized complex. Finally, a security guard let me in a side entrance. I walked past shuttered stores through the vacant corridors, usually packed with shoppers. Finally, I reached Creamline. Inside, a handful of cooks were bustling around, preparing stacks and stacks of to-go containers piled high with delicious-smelling food.
I rushed home clutching bags laden with dishes and eagerly unpacked them. Mayer-Selinger engineered Pulkies for our current situation. All of the food holds well, reheats well, and travels well. Every order even comes with a guide on how to prepare each individual dish.
The brisket was impossibly tender and rich, the turkey juicy and packed with flavor. He reimagined a Jewish staple—the sweet and savory noodle kugel—as mac and cheese, creamy and salty and crunchy. Mashed sweet potatoes were adorned with a rosemary-walnut streusel, and cornbread was dripping with a honey butter glaze. He made a tzimmes, which is the vegetables cooked alongside Jewish brisket in its braising liquid, with carrots and onions soaked in beef roasting juices and parsley.
It was a meal that was both familiar and new, which is as good a definition as I could come up with for being Jewish. Whether you call it BBQ, Ashkenazi, or whatever, it is undeniably an expression of the creativity that stems from our experience. And, short of a home-cooked meal at my aunt’s house, it felt like the right way to ring in the new year.
As with many restaurants during Covid, Pulkies is struggling. Creamline has started delivering again alongside Pulkies. Even so, Mayer-Selinger told me that on a good day, they were only doing about $250 between the two restaurants. Rosh Hashanah orders improved the outlook, and he’s hopeful of their prospects moving forward.
Regardless, Mayer-Selinger is just happy that Pulkies is resonating. He’s getting touching stories from across the country of people cheering them on. As he told me, “It’s bringing together proud Jews.”