May 12, 2005
A Bissel Taste of Big Apple’s Best
"Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food: An Opinionated History and More Than 100 Legendary Recipes" by Arthur Schwartz (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $45).
"I am not the first in my family to be obsessed with food," food writer Arthur Schwartz said. "I like to say I was born with a wooden spoon in my mouth because there was always cooking going on, and I was always asked to taste and offer my comments. Enough salt? Enough pepper? Does it have the right ta'am?" she said, using the Hebrew word for taste.
No wonder Schwartz became a food critic, renown for the outspoken and droll persona he developed on his former N.Y. radio show and as executive food editor at the New York Daily News. Or that his award-winning new book, "New York City Food," is subtitled "An Opinionated History." The exhaustively researched work offers his take on Gotham's food personalities, recipes and ethnic cuisine, with loving attention to Jewish fare -- "My soul food," he said.
Besides exploring the origin of the 21 Club and chicken and waffles (some say Los Angeles; Schwartz says Harlem), he dishes about such subjects as the "Jewish champagne," Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda; Arthur Reuben, the first restaurateur to name sandwiches after famous people, and early-20th century bagels, called "cement donuts" because they turned dense an hour after leaving the oven.
Also included are recipes for the perfect matzah ball and babka, the coffee cake that means "grandma" in Polish. It's so named "because in its original form it was stout and round, just like grandmothers used to be before they went to aerobics classes and practiced yoga," he said.
Speaking from his Brooklyn apartment, the 58-year-old Schwartz bantered in a similarly witty (and opinionated) fashion about how to properly eat deli sandwiches (God forbid you should put anything but mustard on pastrami) and just how much Jewish immigrants influenced Big Apple cuisine.
"Some of the most quintessential New York foods are of Central and Eastern European Jewish origin: bagels and lox, pastrami on rye, corned beef, pickles, cheesecake, matzah balls, knishes," he said.
If those foods eventually migrated west to Los Angeles, it all began in Manhattan with the creation of the now-ubiquitous delicatessen. Although Schwartz can't name the first such restaurant, he traces the institution, in part, to individuals such as Isaac Gellis, the Berlin-born sausage manufacturer who by 1872 was producing "mountains of kosher sausages, frankfurters and other cold cuts."
"One reason these meats became so popular -- along with lox, which is salted salmon -- is that they require no further cooking," Schwartz said. If you lived in a tiny tenement apartment with minimal cooking facilities, these were like convenience foods of their day."
Lox, however, probably did not meet the bagel until the 1930s, Schwartz discovered while interviewing Florida retirees and food author Joan Nathan. Rather, Jews ate the fish on black bread until Al Jolson sang his song, "Bagels and Yox," on a radio show sponsored by Kraft, the cream cheese manufacturer, around 1933.
Other Schwartz research revealed secrets of the now-elusive egg cream, a mix of seltzer, chocolate syrup and milk supposedly invented by Louis Auster in a Lower East Side candy store circa 1910. Initially Auster's grandson, Stanley, kvetched he couldn't discuss egg creams because of his heart condition; after prodding from his wife, he revealed one of grandpa's secrets was the particularly vigorous bubble in a homemade carbon dioxide charged seltzer. Schwartz now recommends using highly carbonated supermarket soda water, rather than old-fashioned seltzer from a siphon bottle, to make the beverage.
"This, of course, has gotten me into trouble with my friends, the seltzer men of Brooklyn," he said.
If the egg cream has dwindled as the preferred Jewish soft drink, the tribe's love of Chinese food has continued to thrive in the past six decades.
"It started because Jews could go into a Chinese restaurant and feel safe," Schwartz said. Until the 1970s, only three types of restaurants existed, besides Jewish ones, in New York: French was for fancy occasions, Italian was intimidating due to the Madonna over the cash register, but Chinese was cheap, tasty and nonthreatening.
The Chinese, after all, weren't Christian; the statue of Buddha looked like a decorative statue, or perhaps your fat Uncle Moe, and Jews were one step up the socioeconomic ladder from the Chinese. "As Philip Roth points out in 'Portnoy's Complaint,' to a Chinese waiter a Jew is just another white guy," Schwartz said.
And while the treif drew Jews who wanted to rebel against kosher parents, the minced meat and lack of dairy ingredients allowed others to blithely "cheat" on kashrut.
"My late cousin Danny, who was kosher, along with many other otherwise observant people I have known, happily ate roast pork fried rice, because the meat was chopped into such small pieces," Schwartz said. "The attitude was, 'What I don't see won't hurt me.'"
In Schwartz's Brooklyn childhood home, take-out Chinese graced the menu, along with his grandmother's refined Russian Jewish cooking. Young Arthur completed chores such as chopping liver and cranking the meat grinder; he also absorbed his grandfather's stories of selling pickles from a pushcart during the Depression and working as a curmudgeonly waiter in a Romanian Jewish Steak house.
Schwartz, for his part, got his first food job by admitting he had no proven qualifications.
"I have gathered instead three personal endorsements," he wrote to Newsday editors in the late 1960s.
"'Arthur's oysters Rockefeller saved our marriage -- Elaine Schwartz, wife. Arthur's pot roast is even better than my mother's -- Sydell Schwartz, mother. Arthur's chocolate soufflé aggravates my diabetes -- Eva Rothseid, mother-in- law.'"
Since then, the food writer -- nicknamed "The Schwartz Who Ate New York" -- has knife-and-forked his way through all five boroughs and has written five books, including "What to Cook When You Think There Is Nothing in the House to Eat."
Among food authors, he is known as the culinary ambassador from Gotham: "Arthur is a walking encyclopedia of New York food, and certainly of New York Jewish food," Nathan said.
"He is the most reliable expert on food for real people," L.A. Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Gold said. "He is the guy you'd ask where to get the best pastrami, and you'd believe him."
For Schwartz, opining about pastrami and other Jewish fare was the easiest part of writing his new book. "It's my life, my history," he said.