Arthur Schwartz Eats Brooklyn

arthur schwartz“The Schwartz who ate New York” was longtime food editor and restaurant critic at Newsday, then at the Daily News, and for 13 years hosted the “Food Talk” radio program on WOR. Today he writes cook- books and teaches cooking here and at his own school in Italy. We set out from his gorgeous Park Slope apartment (two kitchens!), savored some Brooklyn mouthfuls together and ruminated on what makes eating here so unique.

Arthur Schwartz: When I was growing up in Marine Park, we were working class and people had each other over for coffee and cake. Every neighborhood had a great bakery, if not three, and on Sundays you’d see a line of men, each with a newspaper under his arm and a dog on a leash, waiting to get onion rolls, tea biscuits, Danish, and marble cake. My mother used to say you gotta go to three or four bakeries, because each has its specialty. Now there are almost none.

First stop, the Bagel Hole.

AS: This end of seventh avenue has changed so much it’s almost unrecognizable. Even in the past few weeks. The Bagel Hole sells the best bagels in the city of New York. They’re really old fashioned. They’re firm, not soft, and they’re not too big.

He gets a salt bagel, I get sesame with a schmear. The little bagels are warm and extraordinary.

AS: This is as close to the real thing as it gets. You can even see how chewy they are. That’s because they have no dough conditioners. H&H in Manhattan is totally overrated. These days most bagels are made for Americans, not for New Yorkers. Although now only half the people in New York are even from New York.

EB: How does Brooklyn today compare to the Brooklyn of your childhood?

AS: Brooklyn is the same, and it’s changing. It’s been changing my whole life. Now all you yuppies have moved here. When I was growing up, everybody’s parents couldn’t wait to leave. Now their kids move back here and they have conniptions—which I used to think was a Yiddish word. I myself left Brooklyn for Manhattan in 1975. Eight years ago I moved back. I couldn’t afford to live the way I wanted there. Even the most successful food writer in Manhattan is poor compared to his venture-capitalist neighbors.

These days, young sensible chefs who want a family and a normal life see how hard it is to do anything in Manhattan. You need a million-dollar investment to open—it’s impossible to do anything creative. It’s gotten so it’s only for the super-rich and the very poor. This week, [New York Times restaurant critic Frank] Bruni was excited to find a good $60 bottle of wine. That much money should feed a family of four. I went out in Manhattan the other night and the steak was $48. Even the appetizers are double digits, and pastas are $25. I would never leave the house for a bowl of spaghetti. I can make that better than anybody.

EB: How did Italian food become such a part of your life?

AS: I grew up in Brooklyn! We all lived together. We all knew each other’s customs. I say: Lochaim, salut, slainte. I call it the Brooklyn toast. Though the Irish of course had no food.

Next stop, Isaac’s Kosher Bakery, where the locals line up for all manner of kosher pastries: bowties, kichel, mendlebread “Jewish biscotti” and chocolate babka.

AS: You have to understand these chocolate things. These are foods that have gone through the immigrant experience. So-called ethnic food is just a food that goes to another country. And if it comes here, it gets bigger and richer. Babka was a plain sweetened yeast dough. But in the States you fill it with lots of cinnamon and nuts and hey, why not chocolate? Now it’s more chocolate than cake. The cake is holding together a candy bar.

Places like this don’t exist in Manhattan anymore. The leases are too expensive. And who would shop there anyway? The people in Manhattan are all from elsewhere. Even here the sour rye is disappearing. There’s not a generation that appreciates it. Who’s gonna make this bread?

EB: So you think food is dead in Manhattan but alive in Brooklyn. What about Queens?

AS: I don’t know Queens that well. I know Naples better than I know Queens. Recently a friend’s Neopolitan mother came to visit. After a day here she said, “I know why you like Brooklyn so much. It’s a lot like Naples.” She’s right! The honk at you, they’re free spirits. They’re a little crazy, a little shabby, a little beautiful.

Outside, side-by-side storefronts offer halal meat and kosher salmon.

AS: Is this Brooklyn or what? We don’t have much bigotry here. Not like Staten Island where everything is segregated. Here we’re all thrown together, like a tossed salad. I don’t like the phrase melting pot. We don’t melt so much. We’re mixed up together. I’m not saying each group doesn’t take on any Americanness, but they maintain their ethnic identity.

One thing I’m still looking for is a good soul food place in Brooklyn. My cleaning lady keeps telling me there’s not one. She’s 79. She’s a great cook from N.C. [North Carolina.] Amazing layer cakes, corn bread, green beans. I give her food, she gives me food. My last cleaning lady never ate my food. It was very insulting.

Last stop is Mansoura’s Kosher Oriental Pastry, the only Jews on earth, says Arthur, to make Turkish delight and kosher baklava. The young man outside grins: “Mr. Schwartz!” His parents invite us into the back room where their lunch is bubbling on the stove, feed us semolina cake (Your “not special” is still very delicious, says Arthur), and debate the smuggling of superior pistachios from Sicily.

AS: This is what’s hugely different about Brooklyn: the fact that I can even have this conversation. No one offers a seat in the back of the bakery in Manhattan. No one has time. Really, Manhattan is just over. It’s all chain stores and new high-rise luxury condos. Zero ethnic enclaves. I try not to go if I can help it.