Ten years into her career working on supply chain operations in the food space, Elyssa Heller had what she calls a “millennial life crisis.” Unsure what she wanted to do with her life, she thought about where she was happiest: on her family’s regular trips to Barnum & Bagel, a circus-themed deli and appetizing restaurant in suburban Chicago near where Elyssa grew up. “That was my happy place,” she says. “If I could spend all my time in the deli, that would make me happy.”
So, she started baking bagels and selling them out of Paulie Gee’s, a pizzeria in Brooklyn. In time, she opened two places of her own, Edith's Sandwich Counter and Edith’s Eatery & Grocery, named for her great-aunt Edith who owned a deli before Elyssa was born. Elyssa and her team serve Ashkenazi favorites like hot pastrami on rye and LEOs (lox, eggs, and onions) on bagels, alongside dishes from other parts of the Jewish Diaspora like Yemenite malawach and challah toast with harissa butter.
Growing up, Elyssa says she didn’t know about Jewish culture and food beyond her own American Ashkenazi traditions, like kugel and the brisket with Heinz Chili Sauce her family ate on the holidays. When she went to college in Canada, she met Jews from other communities. “Seeing it in practice was so eye opening,” Elyssa explains. Through friends, she was introduced to different culinary traditions from across the Diaspora. “It was so much more colorful than I realized,” she adds.
Edith’s has offered her a path to explore these traditions and delve deeper into her own family recipes like kugel, which she riffs on, serving a leek and potato version over the holidays and a dessert kugel this fall. Elyssa also recently discovered the Jewish roots of one of her family’s signature dishes: noodles with cottage cheese. When she was little, her mother made it often, but Elyssa never thought about its origins. Earlier this year, she learned both her mother and grandmother had grown up on the dish that’s called lokshen mit kaese in Yiddish. Across three generations of women, “That’s the one thing we all seem to have eaten,” Elyssa says.
She’s updated the dish adding lots of black pepper like the Roman classic cacio e pepe. After a long day at the restaurant, it’s what she makes at midnight when she’s ravenous. “It’s kind of the only thing I ever have in the fridge,” Elyssa says.