Gut Instinct: No Holds Zabar’s

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

My family’s emails flooded my inbox, deluging me with demands for food and drink.

“Beer, corned beef, pastrami,” my brother wrote. “Low-fat salami, black-and-whites, bialys!” my mom added. “Onion board, good rye bread,” my dad demanded, following up with a terse text message. “Get Gorilla Coffee and bagels. The bagels here are crap.”

Here is Dayton, Ohio, my hometown, where my girlfriend and I were headed to spend Thanksgiving. Why such lust for Jewish staples? My parents are expatriate New York Jews. This meant I lived a dual life. Like my peers, I played baseball and soccer, and became an Ohio State Buckeyes football fanatic. Unlike my peers, I attended Hebrew school thrice weekly and supped on foodstuffs far unlike friends’ mashed potatoes and meatloaf: fall-apart brisket simmered long and slow in a pressure cooker, or matzo ball soup with broth made from mounds of chicken.

“Josh, can you scrape the fat off the soup?” my mom would ask, passing me a spoon with which to remove the cooled, coagulated layer of mucus-yellow fowl blubber.

More than the food we consumed (Thai curries and Chinese stir-fries starring fermented black beans were also dinnertime staples), my culinary childhood was defined by what my family didn’t devour. I listened to my parents long for thin-crust pizza, pastrami, corned beef, bialys and, above all, bagels. “They’re not just rolls with seeds, damn it,” my dad would bemoan about the locally available product. Stoop to frozen Lender’s bagels? Never.

Thus, when we headed to New York every year to visit grandparents and cousins, it was much like returning to the culinary Promised Land. Mecca was Zabar’s (2245 Broadway at W. 80th St., 212-787-2000), the Upper West Side landmark of lox, onion-rye bread, rugelach, knishes and corned beef. Screw Times Square. I was starry-eyed wandering through the narrow, cramped aisles, my senses assaulted by smoked fish, stinky cheeses and barrels of fresh-roasted coffee. “This is heaven,” my dad would say, buying a taste of New York to take back to Ohio.

But one man’s heaven is a very specific, very New York kind of hell, which I discovered upon arriving at Zabar’s to fill my family’s shopping list. (If we arrived bearing fewer than three loaves of onion rye, we’d likely be chased away with electric carving knives.) On a normal day, shopping at Zabar’s is like running a delicious gauntlet, where a misstep could spell disaster. Vats of serve-yourself olives sit precariously close to teetering stacks of discounted Gruyere, while the narrow bread aisle squeezes customers like a corset, creating a jostling bottleneck that could send baguettes scattering across the floor.

On a Saturday, especially a Saturday before a major culinary holiday, Zabar’s is pandemonium. “I need that goat cheese,” a grandma-type said, elbowing me aside to nab a container, down from $8.98 to $2.98. “It’s so cheap,” she said, hugging it to her body like a nursing infant. Shoppers’ frenzy is fueled by Zabar’s slashed prices, more in line with Walmart than a gourmet grocer.

Methinks there’s psychology to the cut-rate prices. Us Jews, we love bargains. And free samples of fancy food, which, at Zabar’s, are available every 10 feet. Tiny cubes of pungent cheese here, slivers of prosciutto there, sizzling rounds of sausage over there. In theory, it’s a walking smorgasbord designed to make you buy food you didn’t know you needed. Hell, I purchased a half-pound of smoked mussels after being bewitched by a taste of the bivalve. (“Fresh from Maine this morning,” the counter guy said, his sales pitch accompanied by a smile.) In practice, the free samples are like tossing bloody chum into a shark-filled sea. Customers circled each sample stand, clamoring for a taste of free…whatever. It didn’t matter.

“Damn sample day,” a frazzled mother said, pushing her cart through the hungering, immobile hordes. Like tailing a wailing ambulance tearing through cleared traffic, I followed her to the meat counter, where I purchased a log of kosher salami and peppery pastrami. On to bread, where I loaded up on bialys, onion rye, bagels, bagels and more bagels. Was this enough bread to appease my parents? I had no time to ponder, as packs of sweets-mad shoppers descended upon the pie display, which I mistakenly stood beside. I wriggled away and wormed my way to a checkout counter.

“Man, it was crazy in here today,” I told the cashier, taking deep, calming breaths.

“Today,” she said, scanning my bread, “today was not crazy. Want to see crazy? Come back next week.”

What’s your take on shopping at Zabar’s? Tell me at Follow me on Twitter @JoshMBernstein.