Friday, January 10, 2020

Zabar’s | Lefsetz Letter

Tom Corson sent a care package.

Actually, his assistant sent it, last month, when I was away.

So, do I tell him this? OF COURSE NOT!

But then I did.

I was frustrated. Because everything looked so good and I had to throw it out. So I checked my e-mail, to make sure it wasn’t a screw-up on my end, that I did tell his assistant I wouldn’t be back until 1/1.

I had.

So then I decided to take a risk. I thanked Tom, told him how much I appreciated it, but I’d had to throw it out. Tom said he’d send another one! I felt guilty, but to be honest, I wanted the food.


Used to be there was a good deli in every town. A good Jewish deli. It wasn’t until I was in college that I heard there was any other kind. I laughed at people talking about an “Italian” deli, or a “Polish” deli… Delis were inherently Jewish, right?

I’m still not sure.

But for a long while, my father went to Max’s, which became Sam’s, where the pickles were in a barrel and they sold those green tomato pickles. Actually, I didn’t realize they were tomatoes, if I had, I probably wouldn’t have eaten them.

And the jelly rings! Oh, scrumptious!

And all the fish I didn’t eat back then and I crave now.

And the bagels..

Just like Yiddish words have become commonplace, like chutzpah and klutz, never mind schmuck and schmutz, so has the bagel.

Blame the Lenders.

You see everything used to be regional, bagels included. The Lenders owned the New Haven market, they were the first ones who decided you could freeze bagels and sell them in the supermarket. I actually went to camp with Albert Lender, who kept telling us his family made bagels, but we didn’t believe it, living twenty miles away in Fairfield, until they started showing up in our supermarket.

And then…bagels went goyische.

You see, it used to be all about water bagels. And they were mostly plain, there were not all these varieties, never mind an “everything” bagel. Sure, you could get an egg bagel, an onion bagel, maybe even poppy seed, but what made a bagel a bagel was…

The exterior. Nearly hard as a rock. If you weren’t about to break a tooth when you chomped down on it, it wasn’t a bagel.

Then suddenly bagels were everywhere. Oftentimes they were giant-sized, and the only thing that distinguished them from regular bread was the fact they were round. These were not bagels!

Certainly on the west coast. I moved to L.A. They had the Western Bagel Company. Locals loved it, they didn’t know any better. Expats? They found them declasse, inedible.

Now ultimately, Sam’s closed, and Moishe’s opened up. Moishe wasn’t really his name, even though everybody called him that, but I knew the truth because his son Dennis went to school with me, and was a friend of mine.

But, like everything in life, the good things eventually expire. Moishe reached the end of his time, his era, and there’s not a good deli in Fairfield anymore.

There’s still a decent one in Westport. Gold’s.

Actually, the Golds lived in Fairfield, their daughter Brett was a good friend of my sister Wendy.

But the reason I mention Gold’s is because that’s where Paul Newman’s salad dressing was born. Julius Gold sued for a piece. He did not get it.

But today, if my mother is hosting on a big holiday, let’s say Rosh Hashanah, or Passover, she sends John to Zabar’s.

Now we’ve been going to Zabar’s forever. It’s the pinnacle of deli. But it was not a regular event. For the city was fifty miles away.

And, like Jews themselves, the delis are falling by the wayside. Maybe you saw that movie “Deli Man,” it occasionally plays on PBS, you can pull it up on streaming services. No one wants to be a deli man anymore. You’re working around the clock and you’re not getting rich. Hell, even the Carnegie Deli closed.

And then it comes to intermarriage…

Funny how there’s so much anti-Semitism in America, the perps don’t have to worry, we’re depleting our ranks all by ourselves.

But they hate us nonetheless.

So Jewish food is not one of the great cuisines. It’s known for being hearty and overcooked, the complete opposite of French food. Maybe it’s because in Russia you needed something to fill your belly, keep you going.

So, we’ve got brisket and pastrami, the former of which has gone positively mainstream.

And lox and bagels.

Oh, and whitefish and sable too, but I don’t think they’re gonna be around for that much longer, it’s the older generation that is keeping them alive, like opera and the symphony.

And like bagels, you can now get smoked salmon everywhere.

But it’s not the Nova of my dreams.

So Felice texted me that the new Zabar’s box arrived, just after I was leaving my blood test for my heart doctor.

I’d been eating so clean! No rice, pasta, bread. Just two Dove chocolate bits a day. I wanna live.

But when I got home from Hollywood, Felice had cracked the rye and…

I couldn’t resist.

That’s another thing the non-Jews have probably never been exposed to. Going to the bakery and buying fresh rye bread. Hell, I could have eaten the entire loaf before I got home, but my mother always said “You’re gonna ruin your dinner!” Although that never happened.

And the best rye bread you can get today, along with the best pastrami, happens to be in L.A., at Langer’s, it’s the way they recook it after it’s been baked.

And actually, on the exterior of the package, Zabar’s said to reheat this bread. But who can wait?

I found the end, it’s all about the end, because it’s all about the crust and…

It just wasn’t that good.

Now that was a big step, I shouldn’t be eating bread.

But now that I’d taken a bite of the rye, I had to sample the bagels. Plain, just like they’re meant to be.

I’d told Felice to freeze them, but just before she did, I broke one out.

The exterior was firm. Not as firm as the bagels of yore, but far different from what passes for a bagel in those places that sell “bagel sandwiches”? Huh? Maybe HILLEL sandwiches, wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy those? But a BAGEL sandwich? Inherently, if you put the two halves together, it’s a sandwich, but I never heard a Jew refer to it as such.

But once you get savvy, you know it’s all about splitting the bagel in half, toasting it brown and then using each side as a platform, for pickings.

So I bit into the Zabar’s bagel and it…

Tasted pretty good!

Now once I go off the rails, I absolutely cannot stop myself. So I went into the fridge and got the cream cheese.

Now Max’s/Sam’s used to have homemade chive cheese. And not with those tiny bits of chives you get in the store-bought version but HUGE chives, you could really taste ’em! You see as big as Philadelphia is, and it’s not bad, it’s not in the league of homemade cream cheese. And the cream cheese from Zabar’s is as good as it gets. First and foremost…IT’S CREAMY!

So I put a schmear on the bagel and take a bite and…

THE WORLD GOES FROM BLACK AND WHITE TO COLOR! There are explosions, I break out into a smile.! This is it, the holy grail! Just when you think it’s unachievable, you’re brought back. It’s a direct link between what was then and is now. Suddenly, I was back in my childhood home, on Sunday morning.

Going back to the past is mostly creepy. Come on, those people you’ve reconnected with on Facebook? They may be older, but ultimately they’re the same, you remember why you drifted apart.

But if you could be ten once again, at summer camp, wouldn’t that be exquisite?

And now I can’t stop. The plan was a bite, but now I’ve got to eat the whole bagel. I keep schmearing on the cream cheese, I’m in my own personal reverie.

And then I spot the rugelach. These too, have gone mainstream.

And I extract one and bite down and I’m brought back to Jewish holidays past.

So I eat another.

And then, as I’m holding the bag in my hand, Felice asks…”Do you want me to tell you when to stop?”

To tell you the truth, I was gonna eat another cinnamon rugelach. I mean every day they get stiffer and lose flavor. But I held off.

But I did finish the bagel.

And now I’m in bliss.


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