Ode To The New York Times Food Section
If you are not from the New York metropolitan area, you probably can't name this
We're a day late to this story, for which we apologize, but this is worth it. We've been ever-so-restrained about David Brooks discovering the existence of people who don't usually go to gourmet sandwich shops and whatnot, but for once we're not looking at these column inches and wondering what the fuck David Brooks is up to. No, this comes from the food section, of all places.
You see, the New York Times has recently been making an effort to get out of its lane as the Paper of Pretentious Record and understand Real America. So of course it publishes a whole feature piece on buttered rolls.
But not just any buttered rolls, oh no! The kind that only New Yorkers know about! You know what, let's just break this down for you. Starting with this lede, which is a thing of wonder and awe:
It can be hard to explain the appeal of a buttered roll.
Unlike the breakfast sandwich or the cruller, the humble buttered roll makes no claims to lusciousness. It’s not really greater than the sum of its parts: a round roll, sliced and slathered with butter. There is no alchemy involved.
And yet, like many New Yorkers, I’ve breakfasted all my life on buttered rolls, wrapped in plastic, foil or wax paper and sold for about a dollar at any corner deli, bodega or coffee cart.
Do I love them? No. That is not really the point. I love that they exist, an unsung, charmingly ordinary hero of the city’s mornings.
I am actually kind of glad to hear that New Yorkers eat things so humble for breakfast! I had thought, from my previous reading of the New York Times Sunday Edition, that it was all overpriced eggs from whatever the next most expensive version of Panera is! But no, damn my eyes, New Yorkers are just like us!
Though of course bread and butter are eaten all over, the buttered roll (or roll with butter, as it is known in parts of New Jersey) is a distinctly local phenomenon. Mention its name outside the New York metropolitan area and you would very likely be met with blank incomprehension.
Now, I live in Appalachia. I am from the high Rockies. Neither of those places is in the New York metropolitan area. I own a pan that has belonged to my husband’s family since early last century that is according to family tradition dedicated to making rolls. I tried once to make a cake in the roll pan and I thought my mother-in-law was going to actually kill me for the misstep. That pan is for rolls. I’m pretty sure she thought less of me after that, to the day she died. (Also I was never good enough for her firstborn so maybe she was looking for an excuse, but still!)
“Never heard of it growing up in Chicago,” said Michael Stern, a chronicler of regional fare and an author of the “Roadfood” book series, “and really not much beyond Fairfield County in Connecticut.” (Indeed, one can roughly trace the expansion of the buttered roll to the migration of New Yorkers to surrounding commuter suburbs.)
If your job is “food journalist” and you have never heard of a “buttered roll” then you should not be writing about food. For what it’s worth, I have also eaten rolls with butter in Chicago, so we must assume this writer grew up in a Four-Yorkshireman hole in the muck where all he ever ate was gravel and WAS GRATEFUL FOR IT, DAMMIT!
In New York City itself, buttered rolls are a perennial: Like a working character actor, they are everywhere you look without realizing it. No one has tried to reinvent the buttered roll, or jazz it up or export it — the idea just wouldn’t occur. Still, it unobtrusively endures.
No. No. No, a fucking roll is not like an underemployed actor. It is a piece of bread, shaped into a roundish form, and in its best incarnation it gets an egg or butter wash when it is baked. An actor is a person. It’s not even a good comparison, because if an underemployed actor flies under the radar that’s one thing, but who has ever been presented with tasty bread and not noticed it? Also: you just said in the previous paragraph that you had in fact exported the fucking rolls.
“It’s one of the most popular things I sell, absolutely,” said Peter Cherevas, who has had a coffee cart stationed at 86th Street and Broadway for the past 27 years. Sales, he said, are “very, very consistent — more than bagels.”
“Bagels have slacked off; buttered rolls have not,” he continued. “Small coffee, milk one sugar, you’re good.”
Mr. Cherevas typically sells four dozen buttered rolls a day, to a diverse group of customers: young and old, suits and hard hats. “Everyone!” he said. “They’re all New Yorkers, though, not tourists.”
I’m not trying to fuck with the food truck guy. All I’m saying is that it’s a rare tourist who goes to New York City and wakes up early and thinks “I am in a food capital, fuck real breakfast, I WANT A PLAIN BUTTERED ROLL!” Most tourists stay in places where bread is served in the morning next to the coffee station in the lobby, if there’s not a restaurant or buffet included in the room rate. It makes sense he’d not see many tourists. I hope he gets free advertising in exchange for having been featured in such an utterly silly bit of writing.
Part of the appeal is that they’re hard to screw up. Even if the roll is less than fresh, or prepared with margarine, or the filling is bizarrely distributed, the final product is somehow, magically, edible.
I don’t even know what to do with insights of this magnitude. Bread: you can eat it! Bread: it’s fucking MAGIC, man!
“You can’t go just anywhere in New York and get a decent breakfast sandwich,” the chef Wylie Dufresne said. “You certainly can’t guarantee a good bagel. But you can go into any bodega, get a buttered roll.”
No, really, New York has figured out how to put bread in all their food stores. This is why us rural folk don’t venture into the cities, because that’s like witchcraft. How do they do that? Is there, like, a centralized place that just makes bread, and then some kind of conveyance to get the bread to the stores? My rural brain hurts even trying to think of how this all might work because I just make rolls in my kitchen most of the time.
It’s not that straightforward, though. If you ask New Yorkers about it, as I did, the effect can be practically Proustian. “Hang on, let me write a novel about this,” responded one friend, who (apparently overcome with emotion) then failed to do so. Another friend’s father recalled a song at a 1968 Hunter high school sing-in featuring the lyrics “Gristedes takes a cut a every roll and buttah.” (Unconfirmed.) My husband, as a young editor at the book publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, often saw Roger Straus Jr., one of the company’s founders, buy a buttered roll and coffee regular from the coffee cart in front of the building, part of his morning routine.
PROUSTIAN. Bread is Proustian. If your unconscious memory is triggered by eating bread rolls, well, the Atkins diet was over ages ago and you can absolutely move on. Doctors recommend a moderate amount of all food groups and some exercise these days. I suppose that bread eaten by a publisher might be described as Proustian, but then again most book publishers are prone to overblown literary references. It’s their actual job. Still, nobody’s saying the publisher described it this way -- that’s the choice of the author, who has likely never fully read Proust any more than you have, because Proust is something you can safely say you’ve read to be pretentious knowing that nobody else has and you’ll never get called out.
Peter Elliot, an editor at Bloomberg, recalled that for his class-conscious father, buttered rolls were too unsophisticated, and banned in their East Side home.
How fucking above yourself do you have to be to ban buttered bread?
The origins of the buttered roll are cloaked in mystery, or perhaps mere lack of curiosity. I approached five historians of New York food, all of whom admitted they had never considered the roll’s place in the city’s foodscape. It belongs instead to a certain kind of anecdotal lore. That said, there are certain facts. The first such rolls would have arrived in New York in the 1870s, along with Louis Fleischmann’s Vienna Model Bakery, which brought commercial yeasted bread to the city. The buttered roll apparently became popular with German Jews (and later, Eastern European Jews) as a filling, inexpensive dairy meal, in accordance with kosher law.
Pliny the fucking Elder described how people made yeasted breads in his day. I had been under the impression that Jewish people had figured out that whole “leavening” thing well before the 1870s, to boot. Maybe shaping bread into rolls was, like, a modern Christian invention? (Also, is this a weird way of accusing Jews of stealing crusty breads?) In any case, the origins of bread rolls with butter aren’t a mystery. It’s a subject of study for archaeologists.
To some purists, a buttered roll made with “spread” is not worth eating. “The entire point is a roll spread with real, sweet butter,” said Christina Harcar, a fifth-generation New Jerseyan. “The day they switched to margarine, in the ’70s, is the day my grandmother ate her last buttered roll.”
If you are out there, cast adrift by margarine, you can email me. I will give you my recipe for both rolls and homemade butter. You don’t have to live your life out, pining for bits of bread, wishing that people just didn’t love margarine so fucking much.
Still, it’s not a hard taste to acquire. A vendor who has run a coffee cart in Midtown East since 2009 said he had never had a buttered roll before moving to New York from Karachi, Pakistan. Now, though?
“I eat one every day,” he said. “Small coffee and one buttered roll. It’s easy.”
The Fertile Crescent, which is where humans started to grow wheat, is not actually that far from Pakistan. It seems possible that this vendor, confronted with a food writer asking stupid questions like “had you ever had a roll with butter before you moved to New York,” simply amused himself and said no.
Our apologies for skipping over some of the last half of the article, but it doesn’t get any fucking better and there’s only so many ways to point out the magnitude of idiocy it takes to claim that “buttered rolls” are a food unique to the Atlantic Seaboard.
I never thought I would be pining for the relatively self-aware takes of David Fucking Brooks.
And it is now your Open Thread!
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