Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties from Kansas City to Cuzco

Overview

Calvin Trillin has never been a champion of the “continental cuisine” palaces he used to refer to as La Maison de la Casa House. What he treasures is the superb local specialty. And he will go anywhere to find one. As it happens, some of his favorite dishes can be found only in their place of origin. Join Trillin on his charming, funny culinary adventures as he samples fried marlin in Barbados and the barbecue of his boyhood in Kansas City. Travel alongside as he hunts for the authentic fish taco, and ...
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Overview

Calvin Trillin has never been a champion of the “continental cuisine” palaces he used to refer to as La Maison de la Casa House. What he treasures is the superb local specialty. And he will go anywhere to find one. As it happens, some of his favorite dishes can be found only in their place of origin. Join Trillin on his charming, funny culinary adventures as he samples fried marlin in Barbados and the barbecue of his boyhood in Kansas City. Travel alongside as he hunts for the authentic fish taco, and participates in a “boudin blitzkrieg” in the part of Louisiana where people are accustomed to buying these spicy sausages and polishing them off in the parking lot. (“Cajun boudin not only doesn’t get outside the state, it usually doesn’t even get home.”) In New York, Trillin even tries to use a glorious local specialty, the bagel, to lure his daughters back from California. Feeding a Yen is a delightful reminder of why New York magazine called Calvin Trillin “our funniest food writer.”
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Calvin Trillin is to food writing what Chaplin was to film acting.”
Business Week

“Tasty morsels . . . will have the reader gnawing the book’s cover for lack of the perfect bagel . . . or the succulent boudin.”
The Dallas Morning News

“One of the most brilliant humorists of our times . . . Trillin is guaranteed good reading.”
Charleston Post and Courier

“Trillin never loses track of the ultimate meaning of food—that it connects us to those we care about the most deeply.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Trillin is the guide on a magical mystery tour punctuated by eccentric characters made memorable by his deft touch.”
The Denver Post

The Chicago Sun-Times</i>
Nobody else can write about food with the good cheer of this Manhattan sophisticate, who can wield an anchovy fork with brio and skill at the Four Seasons but really prefers tucking into the good messy stuff of Flyover Land. — Henry Kisor
Publishers Weekly
These 14 essays-which first appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines but have been reworked to form a cohesive whole-nearly all grow out of Trillin's concept of a "register of frustration and deprivation." Recorded are the delicacies that have not taken root in his otherwise fertile home turf of Greenwich Village. For those better acquainted with Trillin's droll humor than his culinary predilections, it should be noted that Trillin is no snooty foodie. His abiding enthusiasm for various dishes is matched by a disdain for "review trotters," and the objects of his affection are more homey than rarefied: Louisiana boudin, Santa Fe posole, pimientos de Padron and Kansas City barbecue, for instance. About these products, he crafts writing that meanders but always finds its center. The deadpan wit, deprecating himself as much as others, remains at a slow simmer throughout. Just as the theme of longing is in danger of becoming repetitive, Trillin throws in a couple of pieces that break the mold but not the rhythm of the book. For Trillin's many fans, it has been too long since a new collection of his food writing has made its way to market-1984's Third Helpings was the last volume strictly devoted to his gastronomic exploits. However briefly, this should sate their longings. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This collection of food essays by humorist, novelist, and satirical poet Trillin (Tepper Isn't Going Out) centers on culinary oddities around the world. Trillin makes semireligious pilgrimages to remote places in search of the best examples of local cuisine, be it pumpernickel bagels or Ecuadorian ceviche, usually prepared by ordinary folks in neighborhood restaurants. He's an adventurous chowhound with a taste for the unusual and makes wry observations on culture and food with his trademark wit and gentle sarcasm. He avoids the "Zagat-clutching foodies" but meets quite a few like-minded individuals in his travels. Several of these essays have previously appeared in The New Yorker and Gourmet magazine, but they benefit from being collected together, as his gustatory to-do list of favorite dishes ultimately comprises a "Register of Frustration and Deprivation." When he finally does get to satisfy one of his longings, he writes, "My intention was simple. I was going to eat enough of such food to hold me for a while." Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03.]-Julie James, Thomasville P.L., NC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The chowhound pursues soul-stirring, pulse-elevating food from one eatery to another, over many a mile. When the times were hard, "there was nothing to do but keep eating," writes Trillin (Tepper Isn’t Going Out, 2002, etc.) in a collection that relates to foodstuffs the way others might refer to passages from holy books. Let us give thanks to the saving graces of Chinese restaurants, from Ecuador to Nauru, Paris to Prague; to that gnarly pumpernickel bagel that might lure the writer’s daughter back to his hometown New York; to all those bistros and neighborhood markets that fill him up in ways the more famous destinations never do, those temples where he "can’t seem to help wondering, when [his] mind wanders between forkfuls, whether God really intended all that to be done to food." Likewise, Trillin is willing to pay the dues of the pilgrim on a quest, journeying far and enduring the foul in search of the sublime—like a string of boudin, for example, proving the Cajun dictum "the best boudin is always the boudin closest to where you live" (as long as you live in Louisiana). Better yet, there’s the Cajun wisdom that says you ought to eat your purchase in the parking lot of the place you bought it in, minutes after buying. Trillin is ready to sample 20 bowls of ceviche, knowing he "would wake up the next morning feeling a bit fragile." His Register of Frustration and Deprivation, foods he is denied because he isn’t geographically positioned to get them, is as plentiful as his turn-downs are rare: "Would it be fair to say that you’re wimping out on the guinea pig?" his daughter asks on a visit to a restaurant in Peru. Fighting for human rights, writing the perfect poem, discoveringcures for mortal diseases: these are endeavors Trillin would consider deserving of our admiration, thank you. And you can add to that "the ability to read the wall signs in Chinese restaurants."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375759963
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/11/2004
  • Edition description: Random House Trade Paperback Edition
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 561,053
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

CALVIN TRILLIN has been called “perhaps the finest reporter in America,” and “a classic American humorist.”

A onetime writer for Time, The New Yorker and a current contributor to The Nation, he is the author of several collections of essays and three comic novels, including the national bestseller Tepper Isn’t Going Out. He has also written three previous books on eating, American Fried, Alice, Let's Eat and Third Helpings, and the acclaimed memoirs, Messages from My Father, a New York Times best seller, and Family Man. His next book will be "Obliviously On He Sails," a collection of satirical verse about the George W, Bush presidency.

Biography

As a religion reporter, Calvin Trillin showed himself as something of a Doubting Thomas.

He was working for Time in the 1960s, and he didn't much like his assigned beat. So, he turned to one of the standard tricks of a good reporter: He hedged. "I finally got out of that by prefacing everything with 'alleged,' " he told Publishers Weekly. "I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."

Fans of Trillin's writing -- his snapshots of ordinary U.S. life for The New Yorker, his political poetry in the Nation, his search for the ideal meal with his wife good-naturedly in tow -- will recognize his style in this early exercise in subversion. He is warm, gentle, and human, but there can be a dash of mischievousness for taste. Even the unwelcome sight of a brussels sprout at a buffet provoked his ire. Turning to his wife, he said, "The English have a lot to answer for."

Humorist Mark Russell took note in the pages of The New York Times in 1987: "Mark Twain, Robert Benchley and [S. J.] Perelman are dead, but Calvin Trillin is right there with the post-funeral cocktail to assure us that life goes on."

Born in Kansas City but transplanted to the West Village of New York City, Trillin has kept in touch with his midwestern roots for much of his writing. A collection of articles from The New Yorker on so-called ordinary murders from around the country became the book Killings, called by The Wall Street Journal "one of the most low-key, dispassionate, matter-of-fact books on murder ever produced."

In its review, the Los Angeles Times said: "He may be The New Yorker's finest stylist, and his writing is quite different from the careful accretion of detail that characterizes much of the magazine's writing. Trillin omits as much as he possibly can; he leaves spaces for resonating, like a guitar string stopped and kept mute to sound the overtone from the next string down."

In Travels with Alice he writes of looking for hamburgers on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Even in a classic New York story, Tepper Isn't Going Out, he writes not of theater or restaurants or even a rent-controlled apartment equidistant between Zabar's and Central Park. Instead he seeks out deeper pleasures: finding the perfect parking space, and holding onto it.

Humor is a Trillin trademark. He began writing a humor column for The Nation in the late 1970s called Uncivil Liberties that became two book collections. In 1980, The New York Times chuckled gratefully at his first novel, writing that "the antics around the nameless news magazine in...Floater are as funny as The Front Page and as absurd as playground pranks."

In 1990, he began treating Nation readers to a new column, a weekly spot of verse on the political hijinks of the day, pieces with names like "If You Knew What Sununu." This, too, became a book, The Deadline Poet: My Life as a Doggerelist. He even shares insights into the creative process: "A fool is fine. A pompous fool's sublime. / It also helps if they have names that rhyme."

Trillin's résumé has a sense of elasticity: journalist, novelist, humorist, satirist, poet. But there is a commonality to his work: It's approachable. And The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley points out that, for a journalist, this may be the toughest feat of all.

"Calvin Trillin is like an old shoe," he wrote in a 1998 review of Trillin's Family Man. "Whatever he may be writing about, he always makes you want to slip into it and get comfy. This may seem like a modest compliment, but it is a high one indeed. Few tricks are more difficult for the journalist to pull off than being consistently likable and engaging, making oneself and one's little world interesting and appealing to others."

Good To Know

Growing up in Kansas City, Calvin Marshall Trillin was known as Buddy.

The family name was originally Trilinsky.

He staged two one-man shows showcasing his humor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Calvin Marshall Trillin (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 5, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Kansas City, Missouri
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1957

Read an Excerpt

1.

MAGIC BAGEL

Not long after the turn of the millennium, I had an extended father-daughter conversation with my older daughter, Abigail, on the way back from a dim sum lunch in Chinatown. Abigail, who was living in San Francisco, had come to New York to present a paper at a conference. As a group of us trooped back toward our house in Greenwich Village, where she'd grown up, Abigail and I happened to be walking together. "Let's get this straight, Abigail," I said, after we'd finished off some topic and had gone along in silence for a few yards. "If I can find those gnarly little dark pumpernickel bagels that we used to get at Tanenbaum's, you'll move back to New York. Right?"

"Absolutely," Abigail said.

There's a great comfort in realizing that a child you've helped rear has grown up with her priorities straight. When I phoned Abigail from the Oakland airport once to ask if she knew of an alternative route to her house in San Francisco--I'd learned of a huge traffic jam on the normal route, toward the Bay Bridge--she said, "Sure. Go south on 880, take 92 west across the bridge to 101, and we'll meet you at Fook Yuen for lunch." Fook Yuen is a dim sum restaurant in Millbrae, about five minutes from the San Francisco airport, and its way with a dumpling has persuaded us that flights in and out of San Francisco are best scheduled in the middle of the day. I report this response to a traffic jam as a way of demonstrating not simply that Abigail always has a fallback career as a taxi dispatcher awaiting her but also that she has the sort of culinary standards that could induce her to switch coasts if the right bagel came along.

But when I mentioned the Chinatown walk exchange to my wife, Alice, she had a different interpretation. She said that Abigail had been speaking ironically. I found it difficult to believe that anybody could be ironic about those bagels. They were almost black. Misshapen. Oniony. Abigail had always adored them. Both of my daughters have always taken bagels seriously. When my younger daughter, Sarah, was a little girl, I revealed in print that she wouldn't go to Chinatown without carrying a bagel--"just in case." At the time that Abigail and I had our conversation about the gnarly black pumpernickel bagel, Sarah was also living in California, in Los Angeles. She seemed perfectly comfortable with the Chinese food there. In fact, when I'd eaten with her at Chinois on Main, in Santa Monica, it occurred to me that her knowledge of the menu was nearly encyclopedic. She had many years before outgrown the need to have a bagel with her at a Chinese restaurant--which was fortunate indeed, because bagels in California were not anywhere near up to her standards.

For a while, I brought along a dozen or two New York bagels for Sarah whenever I went to Southern California, but I finally decided that this policy was counterproductive. "If a person prefers to live in California, which happens to be thousands of miles from her very own family," I told her, "it seems to me appropriate that such a person eat California bagels. I understand that in some places out there if you buy a dozen wheat germ bagels you get your choice of a bee pollen bagel or a ginseng bagel free." Sarah eventually moved back East. I'm not going to make any claims for the role of my bagel-withholding policy in that decision, but the fact remains: she did eventually move back East.

I have previously recorded Abigail's response, at age four or five, when, on a visit to my family in Kansas City, Missouri, she'd worked her way partly through a bagel I can describe, given my affection for my hometown, as an honest effort that had simply fallen way short of the mark, the baker having been put in the position a New York deli cook would have found himself in if asked to turn out a bowl of andouille gumbo. "Daddy," she said, "how come in Kansas City the bagels taste like just round bread?" In other words, she knew the difference between those bagel-shaped objects in the Midwest and the authentic New York item that had been hand-rolled and boiled in a vat and then carefully baked by a member in good standing of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. I think it might be fair to characterize her as having been a bagel prodigy.

When I was a child, bagel consumption in Kansas City was not widespread. Bagels were thought of as strictly Jewish food, eaten mainly in New York. In those days, of course, salsa would have been considered strictly Mexican food, if anybody I knew in Kansas City had ever given any consideration to salsa. I doubt if many gentiles in Kansas City had ever heard of a bagel, let alone eaten one. Bagels were available in only two or three stores, one of which was called the New York Bakery. It was only in the real New York that bagels were part of the culture, for both Jews and gentiles. New Yorkers have always talked about picking up freshly baked bagels late at night and being reassured, as they felt the warmth coming through the brown paper bag, that they would be at peace with the world the next morning, at least through breakfast. They've talked about that day in the park when nothing seemed to soothe their crying baby until a grandmotherly woman sitting on a nearby bench, nattering with another senior citizen about Social Security payments or angel food cake recipes or Trotskyism, said that the only thing for a teething infant was a day-old bagel. They've talked about the joy of returning to New York from a long sojourn in a place that was completely without bagels--Indonesia or a tiny town in Montana or some other outpost in the vast patches of the world that New Yorkers tend to think of as the Bagel Barrens.

Roughly corresponding to the time it took our girls to grow up and move to California, bagels had become assimilated. Gefilte fish was still Jewish food, but not bagels. The bagel had gone from a regional ethnic food to an American standard, served at McDonald's and available on supermarket shelves all over the part of America that baked-goods sociologists have long identified with white bread. At one point, I read that, because of a new plant established by one of the firms producing supermarket bagels, the state that led all other American states in turning out bagels was Iowa. A couple of years before Abigail and I discussed pumpernickel bagels on the way back from Chinatown, The New York Times had run a piece by Suzanne Hamlin reporting that in places recently introduced to bagels, emergency rooms were seeing an increasing number of bagel-related injuries--cuts, gouges, and severed digits caused by "impatient eaters who try to pry apart frozen bagels with screwdrivers, attempt to cut hard bagels with dull knives and, more than likely, use their palms as cutting boards." There had been no increase in New York bagel injuries.

From the Times story, you could draw the conclusion that a lot of Americans were being given access to bagels before they knew how to handle them, in the way that a lot of Americans are said to have access to 9-mm pistols or semiautomatic rifles before they know how to handle them. I suspect any number of New Yorkers responded to the story by saying, in the superior tone customarily used by someone from Minneapolis who's relating the chaos caused in Birmingham by a simple snowstorm, "People there just don't have any experience in such things"--or, as the director of emergency medicine at Bellevue did say to the Times, "Those people just aren't ethnically equipped."

Aside from the safety issue, the mainstreaming of formerly ethnic or regional food like bagels must have been confusing for those citizens who grew up before it became common to find Cajun restaurants in upper midwestern shopping malls and lobster shacks in Amarillo. In the eighties, when it was revealed that eating poppy-seed bagels could result in a false positive on a drug test, I saw one of the perils inherent in everybody's suddenly eating everything, whether ethnically equipped or not. I envisioned an applicant to the FBI academy who seems in the tradition of the bureau: he's a well-set-up young man with a square jaw and a direct gaze. He's almost maddeningly polite. His name is O'Connor. He went to Fordham. He always wears a suit and a white shirt and wing-tipped shoes. His father was in the bureau. His drug test seems to indicate that he's a user.

O'Connor is looking stunned. "I can't understand it," he says. "Maybe it was something I ate."

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure that was it," the tester, a grizzled agent near retirement age, says sarcastically. "We all know how corned beef and cabbage can mess up these results."

"You don't think it could have been those chiles rellenos I had for lunch, do you?" O'Connor says, ignoring the sarcasm. "That pico de gallo that came with them was pretty hot stuff."

"Maybe you can catch on with the Parks Department, O'Connor," the tester says, in a more sympathetic tone. "Or Sanitation. You're a husky lad."

"I can't believe blackened redfish would do it," O'Connor says. "Maybe it was that braised bok choy I had with my squid last night. That's all I've eaten lately, except for the poppy-seed bagels with lox and cream cheese that Father Sweeney served at the Holy Name Society breakfast this morning."

"The dope is making you talk crazy, son," the tester says.

The sad part is that they would have almost certainly been inferior poppy-seed bagels. Provisions for the Holy Name Society breakfast might well have been purchased at the local supermarket or at one of those places that make bagels with weird ingredients--blueberries, say, and cinnamon, and more air than you'd find in a Speaker of the House. O'Connor, not having been raised in the connoisseurship, probably wouldn't have known the difference. Not so my daughters. When they were children, bagels were not only their staple food--the food they clung to in unfamiliar surroundings--but also the food used in important rituals. On Sunday mornings, I often took them to Houston Street, on the Lower East Side. At Russ & Daughters, which is what New Yorkers refer to as an appetizing store, we would buy Nova Scotia salmon. Then we'd go next door to Ben's Dairy to get cream cheese and a delicacy known as baked farmer's cheese with scallions. Then we were at Tanenbaum's, a bakery that was probably best known for a large, dark loaf often referred to as Russian health bread. We were not there for Russian health bread. We were there for Abigail's pumpernickel bagels. Abigail had never exhibited any irony when the subject was pumpernickel bagels. Would Proust have been ironic about the madeleine, particularly if he had fetched up in a place where you couldn't get a decent madeleine if your life depended on it?

"So you think she's just humoring her old dad?" I asked Alice, during our discussion of the bagel conversation I'd had with Abigail on the way back from Chinatown.

"I do."

Alice was probably right. I understood that. Abigail was enjoying California, and she had a job there that she loved. As I've admitted before, my daughters have simply made good on their implicit threat to grow up and lead lives of their own. Parents are supposed to accept that. Still, I decided that I'd look around for those pumpernickel bagels. As my father used to say, "What could it hurt?"

It wasn't my first try. When the pumpernickel bagels disappeared, I immediately made serious inquiries. Without wanting to cast blame, I have to say that the disappearance occurred on Mutke's watch. Mutke's formal name is Hyman Perlmutter. In the early seventies, he bought Tanenbaum's Bakery and transformed it into the downtown branch of a bakery he ran eight or ten blocks away called Moishe's. For some time, Mutke carried Tanenbaum's full inventory. Then, one day--I don't remember precisely when, but Abigail and Sarah were still living at home--the pumpernickel bagels were no longer there. Confronted with the facts, Mutke was sanguine. Those particular bagels weren't available anymore, he explained, but, as a special order, he could always provide me with a dozen or two just like them. Eventually, he did. I pulled one out of the bag. It was a smooth bagel, uniformly round. It was the color of cappuccino, heavy on the milk. It was a stranger to onions. It was not by any means Abigail's bagel.

I realize now, of course, that I gave up too easily. Sure, I stopped by to try the pumpernickel any time I heard of a promising new bagel bakery--even if it was uptown, a part of the city I don't venture to unnecessarily. But I didn't make a systematic, block-by-block search. I didn't make the pumpernickel bagel my number-one priority. How was I to know that bagels can be instrumental in keeping families intact? This time, I was going to be thorough. I'd read in Molly O'Neill's New York Cook Book about a place in Queens where bagels were made in the old-fashioned way. I figured that there must be similar places in Brooklyn neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews--Williamsburg, maybe, or Borough Park. I was prepared to go to the outer boroughs. But I thought it made sense to start back on Houston Street.

The area where Abigail and Sarah and I used to make our Sunday rounds has seen some changes over the years. The old tenement streets had once seemed grim, but at some point in the nineties they began to sport patches of raffish chic. On Orchard Street, around the corner from our Sunday-morning purveyors, stores that traditionally offered bargains on fabrics and women's clothing and leather goods became punctuated by the sort of clothing store that has a rack of design magazines and a coffee bar and such a spare display of garments hanging on exposed-brick walls that you might think you're in the studio apartment of someone who has rather bizarre taste in cocktail dresses and no closet to keep them in. At some point the Lower East Side became a late-night destination--both Orchard and Ludlow acquired bars too hip to need signs--and a cool place to live. Around the time I started looking for the pumpernickel bagel in earnest, an apartment on one of the old tenement blocks of Orchard Street changed hands for a million dollars. I could only hope for the new owner's sake that his old zayde wasn't still alive ("You paid what! To live in a place we worked sixteen hours a day to get out of you paid what!"). After spending years listening to customers tell him that he ought to move Russ & Daughters uptown, Mark Federman--the grandson of Joel Russ, the founder--was renovating the apartments above the store and expressing gratitude that his grandfather had held on to the building.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

1 Magic Bagel 3
2 Pepper Chase 17
3 The Frying Game 31
4 Magic Sandwich 43
5 Desperately Seeking Ceviche 54
6 New Grub Streets 69
7 Missing Links 89
8 Chinatown, Chinatown 105
9 The Red and the White 116
10 Posole Dreams 129
11 Don't Mention It 141
12 A Very Short History of the Fish Taco 163
13 Barbecue and Home 175
14 Grandfather Knows Best 188
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First Chapter

1.

MAGIC BAGEL


Not long after the turn of the millennium, I had an extended father-daughter conversation with my older daughter, Abigail, on the way back from a dim sum lunch in Chinatown. Abigail, who was living in San Francisco, had come to New York to present a paper at a conference. As a group of us trooped back toward our house in Greenwich Village, where she'd grown up, Abigail and I happened to be walking together. "Let's get this straight, Abigail," I said, after we'd finished off some topic and had gone along in silence for a few yards. "If I can find those gnarly little dark pumpernickel bagels that we used to get at Tanenbaum's, you'll move back to New York. Right?"

"Absolutely," Abigail said.

There's a great comfort in realizing that a child you've helped rear has grown up with her priorities straight. When I phoned Abigail from the Oakland airport once to ask if she knew of an alternative route to her house in San Francisco--I'd learned of a huge traffic jam on the normal route, toward the Bay Bridge--she said, "Sure. Go south on 880, take 92 west across the bridge to 101, and we'll meet you at Fook Yuen for lunch." Fook Yuen is a dim sum restaurant in Millbrae, about five minutes from the San Francisco airport, and its way with a dumpling has persuaded us that flights in and out of San Francisco are best scheduled in the middle of the day. I report this response to a traffic jam as a way of demonstrating not simply that Abigail always has a fallback career as a taxi dispatcher awaiting her but also that she has the sort of culinary standards that could induce her to switch coasts if the right bagel came along.

But when Imentioned the Chinatown walk exchange to my wife, Alice, she had a different interpretation. She said that Abigail had been speaking ironically. I found it difficult to believe that anybody could be ironic about those bagels. They were almost black. Misshapen. Oniony. Abigail had always adored them. Both of my daughters have always taken bagels seriously. When my younger daughter, Sarah, was a little girl, I revealed in print that she wouldn't go to Chinatown without carrying a bagel--"just in case." At the time that Abigail and I had our conversation about the gnarly black pumpernickel bagel, Sarah was also living in California, in Los Angeles. She seemed perfectly comfortable with the Chinese food there. In fact, when I'd eaten with her at Chinois on Main, in Santa Monica, it occurred to me that her knowledge of the menu was nearly encyclopedic. She had many years before outgrown the need to have a bagel with her at a Chinese restaurant--which was fortunate indeed, because bagels in California were not anywhere near up to her standards.

For a while, I brought along a dozen or two New York bagels for Sarah whenever I went to Southern California, but I finally decided that this policy was counterproductive. "If a person prefers to live in California, which happens to be thousands of miles from her very own family," I told her, "it seems to me appropriate that such a person eat California bagels. I understand that in some places out there if you buy a dozen wheat germ bagels you get your choice of a bee pollen bagel or a ginseng bagel free." Sarah eventually moved back East. I'm not going to make any claims for the role of my bagel-withholding policy in that decision, but the fact remains: she did eventually move back East.

I have previously recorded Abigail's response, at age four or five, when, on a visit to my family in Kansas City, Missouri, she'd worked her way partly through a bagel I can describe, given my affection for my hometown, as an honest effort that had simply fallen way short of the mark, the baker having been put in the position a New York deli cook would have found himself in if asked to turn out a bowl of andouille gumbo. "Daddy," she said, "how come in Kansas City the bagels taste like just round bread?" In other words, she knew the difference between those bagel-shaped objects in the Midwest and the authentic New York item that had been hand-rolled and boiled in a vat and then carefully baked by a member in good standing of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. I think it might be fair to characterize her as having been a bagel prodigy.

When I was a child, bagel consumption in Kansas City was not widespread. Bagels were thought of as strictly Jewish food, eaten mainly in New York. In those days, of course, salsa would have been considered strictly Mexican food, if anybody I knew in Kansas City had ever given any consideration to salsa. I doubt if many gentiles in Kansas City had ever heard of a bagel, let alone eaten one. Bagels were available in only two or three stores, one of which was called the New York Bakery. It was only in the real New York that bagels were part of the culture, for both Jews and gentiles. New Yorkers have always talked about picking up freshly baked bagels late at night and being reassured, as they felt the warmth coming through the brown paper bag, that they would be at peace with the world the next morning, at least through breakfast. They've talked about that day in the park when nothing seemed to soothe their crying baby until a grandmotherly woman sitting on a nearby bench, nattering with another senior citizen about Social Security payments or angel food cake recipes or Trotskyism, said that the only thing for a teething infant was a day-old bagel. They've talked about the joy of returning to New York from a long sojourn in a place that was completely without bagels--Indonesia or a tiny town in Montana or some other outpost in the vast patches of the world that New Yorkers tend to think of as the Bagel Barrens.

Roughly corresponding to the time it took our girls to grow up and move to California, bagels had become assimilated. Gefilte fish was still Jewish food, but not bagels. The bagel had gone from a regional ethnic food to an American standard, served at McDonald's and available on supermarket shelves all over the part of America that baked-goods sociologists have long identified with white bread. At one point, I read that, because of a new plant established by one of the firms producing supermarket bagels, the state that led all other American states in turning out bagels was Iowa. A couple of years before Abigail and I discussed pumpernickel bagels on the way back from Chinatown, The New York Times had run a piece by Suzanne Hamlin reporting that in places recently introduced to bagels, emergency rooms were seeing an increasing number of bagel-related injuries--cuts, gouges, and severed digits caused by "impatient eaters who try to pry apart frozen bagels with screwdrivers, attempt to cut hard bagels with dull knives and, more than likely, use their palms as cutting boards." There had been no increase in New York bagel injuries.

From the Times story, you could draw the conclusion that a lot of Americans were being given access to bagels before they knew how to handle them, in the way that a lot of Americans are said to have access to 9-mm pistols or semiautomatic rifles before they know how to handle them. I suspect any number of New Yorkers responded to the story by saying, in the superior tone customarily used by someone from Minneapolis who's relating the chaos caused in Birmingham by a simple snowstorm, "People there just don't have any experience in such things"--or, as the director of emergency medicine at Bellevue did say to the Times, "Those people just aren't ethnically equipped."

Aside from the safety issue, the mainstreaming of formerly ethnic or regional food like bagels must have been confusing for those citizens who grew up before it became common to find Cajun restaurants in upper midwestern shopping malls and lobster shacks in Amarillo. In the eighties, when it was revealed that eating poppy-seed bagels could result in a false positive on a drug test, I saw one of the perils inherent in everybody's suddenly eating everything, whether ethnically equipped or not. I envisioned an applicant to the FBI academy who seems in the tradition of the bureau: he's a well-set-up young man with a square jaw and a direct gaze. He's almost maddeningly polite. His name is O'Connor. He went to Fordham. He always wears a suit and a white shirt and wing-tipped shoes. His father was in the bureau. His drug test seems to indicate that he's a user.

O'Connor is looking stunned. "I can't understand it," he says. "Maybe it was something I ate."

"Oh, yeah, I'm sure that was it," the tester, a grizzled agent near retirement age, says sarcastically. "We all know how corned beef and cabbage can mess up these results."

"You don't think it could have been those chiles rellenos I had for lunch, do you?" O'Connor says, ignoring the sarcasm. "That pico de gallo that came with them was pretty hot stuff."

"Maybe you can catch on with the Parks Department, O'Connor," the tester says, in a more sympathetic tone. "Or Sanitation. You're a husky lad."

"I can't believe blackened redfish would do it," O'Connor says. "Maybe it was that braised bok choy I had with my squid last night. That's all I've eaten lately, except for the poppy-seed bagels with lox and cream cheese that Father Sweeney served at the Holy Name Society breakfast this morning."

"The dope is making you talk crazy, son," the tester says.

The sad part is that they would have almost certainly been inferior poppy-seed bagels. Provisions for the Holy Name Society breakfast might well have been purchased at the local supermarket or at one of those places that make bagels with weird ingredients--blueberries, say, and cinnamon, and more air than you'd find in a Speaker of the House. O'Connor, not having been raised in the connoisseurship, probably wouldn't have known the difference. Not so my daughters. When they were children, bagels were not only their staple food--the food they clung to in unfamiliar surroundings--but also the food used in important rituals. On Sunday mornings, I often took them to Houston Street, on the Lower East Side. At Russ & Daughters, which is what New Yorkers refer to as an appetizing store, we would buy Nova Scotia salmon. Then we'd go next door to Ben's Dairy to get cream cheese and a delicacy known as baked farmer's cheese with scallions. Then we were at Tanenbaum's, a bakery that was probably best known for a large, dark loaf often referred to as Russian health bread. We were not there for Russian health bread. We were there for Abigail's pumpernickel bagels. Abigail had never exhibited any irony when the subject was pumpernickel bagels. Would Proust have been ironic about the madeleine, particularly if he had fetched up in a place where you couldn't get a decent madeleine if your life depended on it?

"So you think she's just humoring her old dad?" I asked Alice, during our discussion of the bagel conversation I'd had with Abigail on the way back from Chinatown.

"I do."

Alice was probably right. I understood that. Abigail was enjoying California, and she had a job there that she loved. As I've admitted before, my daughters have simply made good on their implicit threat to grow up and lead lives of their own. Parents are supposed to accept that. Still, I decided that I'd look around for those pumpernickel bagels. As my father used to say, "What could it hurt?"

It wasn't my first try. When the pumpernickel bagels disappeared, I immediately made serious inquiries. Without wanting to cast blame, I have to say that the disappearance occurred on Mutke's watch. Mutke's formal name is Hyman Perlmutter. In the early seventies, he bought Tanenbaum's Bakery and transformed it into the downtown branch of a bakery he ran eight or ten blocks away called Moishe's. For some time, Mutke carried Tanenbaum's full inventory. Then, one day--I don't remember precisely when, but Abigail and Sarah were still living at home--the pumpernickel bagels were no longer there. Confronted with the facts, Mutke was sanguine. Those particular bagels weren't available anymore, he explained, but, as a special order, he could always provide me with a dozen or two just like them. Eventually, he did. I pulled one out of the bag. It was a smooth bagel, uniformly round. It was the color of cappuccino, heavy on the milk. It was a stranger to onions. It was not by any means Abigail's bagel.

I realize now, of course, that I gave up too easily. Sure, I stopped by to try the pumpernickel any time I heard of a promising new bagel bakery--even if it was uptown, a part of the city I don't venture to unnecessarily. But I didn't make a systematic, block-by-block search. I didn't make the pumpernickel bagel my number-one priority. How was I to know that bagels can be instrumental in keeping families intact? This time, I was going to be thorough. I'd read in Molly O'Neill's New York Cook Book about a place in Queens where bagels were made in the old-fashioned way. I figured that there must be similar places in Brooklyn neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews--Williamsburg, maybe, or Borough Park. I was prepared to go to the outer boroughs. But I thought it made sense to start back on Houston Street.

The area where Abigail and Sarah and I used to make our Sunday rounds has seen some changes over the years. The old tenement streets had once seemed grim, but at some point in the nineties they began to sport patches of raffish chic. On Orchard Street, around the corner from our Sunday-morning purveyors, stores that traditionally offered bargains on fabrics and women's clothing and leather goods became punctuated by the sort of clothing store that has a rack of design magazines and a coffee bar and such a spare display of garments hanging on exposed-brick walls that you might think you're in the studio apartment of someone who has rather bizarre taste in cocktail dresses and no closet to keep them in. At some point the Lower East Side became a late-night destination--both Orchard and Ludlow acquired bars too hip to need signs--and a cool place to live. Around the time I started looking for the pumpernickel bagel in earnest, an apartment on one of the old tenement blocks of Orchard Street changed hands for a million dollars. I could only hope for the new owner's sake that his old zayde wasn't still alive ("You paid what! To live in a place we worked sixteen hours a day to get out of you paid what!"). After spending years listening to customers tell him that he ought to move Russ & Daughters uptown, Mark Federman--the grandson of Joel Russ, the founder--was renovating the apartments above the store and expressing gratitude that his grandfather had held on to the building.
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