Monday, January 30, 2012

Goodbye, H&H

I ended last week with a bagel-shaped hole in my heart.

The past year in particular has been very rough on Manhattan and Brooklyn mainstays. Mars Bar, Elaine's, Danal and Robin Des Bois, all gone. (OK, admittedly, I've never been to Elaine's but I liked knowing it was there.) Last week was especially painful. For the win: Holiday Cocktail Bar, Southpaw and Bleecker Bob's Records ... and H&H Bagels to close their last remaining location on West 46th Street. 

I have often said that one of the main reasons I could never leave the New York City area is that I'd miss the bagels too much. Sure, in the past year as I've been getting back in shape I've only allowed myself one every few weeks. But it's been comforting to know a good one is always within walking distance once that Defcon 5-sized craving manifests. If I were in Portland, Oregon or the Bay Area (no offense, to those kick ass cities) what I'd have to settle for would just make the carb monster in my belly angrier.

H&H is my benchmark bagel. Much like your first great pizza slice, or your first 6th Street Indian restaurant, or your first Menudo lineup, your first real New York City bagel is the one to live up to. Incidentally, it's named for Hector Toro and his brother-in-law, Hector Hernandez, who founded the business in 1972. Two Hectors in the H&H. Betcha didn't know that. 

I remember when my family lived in CT, my parents often had a date night in the city on Saturdays in Lincoln Center. On the drive home via the Upper West side, they always picked up spreads and fishes at Zabar's, then went next door to H&H for the bagels (like good New Yorkers, they knew you never buy it all in one place). Even at a very young age, due to lifelong insomnia, I was often up when they got home late at night. I watched as my dad would unpack the goods. I would salivate as I caught that sweet, yeasty scent emanating from the paper bag of fresh bagels (H&H baked them fresh all day and night) as it sat on the 70's avocado green kitchen counter. 

We actually owned a bagel tray. It was clear acrylic and long with a circular bottom, perfectly shaped to serve each half bagel upright. They didn't last long in there as my parents, my Grandma Nina and I snatched and slathered them with our preferred toppings. I was a picky eater then, hated smoked fish (this has since changed, but it took a long time), and didn't much care for cream cheese. But don't take away my Heeb license yet because I've always loved chopped liver. (I was not a petite child). Maybe I had an aversion to the other toppings because all three of the adults always seemed to be wearing their herrings and whitefish salad and lox on their cheeks and chins, so absorbed in their business that they couldn't be bothered to wipe it away until they were through. I had seen Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. They were like a pack of hungry, Jewish wolves.

But the H&H bagels themselves could never gross me out. They were always fresh (even a day or two old), a modest size, with just the right amount of bite and give without being too dense or chewy, with a kiss of sweetness. The onion was never too oniony. The sesame was always toasty. Even the cinnamon raisin was perfect when served warm with butter, never too cinnamonny or dessert-like. Many cinnamon raising bagels are like icingless Cinnabons, and that is just wrong.

As an adult living in the city, you learn to live with your Bagel of Convenience. Back in the late 1980s and 90s, there was Munchy's on St. Mark's Place that us NYU'ers worshipped on a regular basis (only 1$ with cream cheese and 50 cents with butter, it was a diet staple. Yet I was somehow delicately slender in those days). Baked on premise, those came pretty close. There are decent stand-ins near where I live in Brooklyn. But too many bagel chains offer these humongous, cake-like things (Zarro, I'm talking to you) that are more like loaves of boiled sweet bread with a hole in them rather than a proper, chewy bagel. Some are even sort of, gasp!, square-shaped or barely have a hole in them. Those look like angry Muppets, not a bagel, dammit!

But I would still make an occasional, out-of-the-way pilgrimage to the Upper West to pay my respects to the King, H&H. As good as some are, there was a certain je ne sais fuck yeah about their bagels that even the good neighborhood joints couldn't top. I'm afraid the exact recipe is gone to the grave like Grandma Nina's pirozhki or O.G.'s Five Spice Chicken. 

I'm a fatalist. I knew the business was in trouble, but I never imagined New Yorkers would let a thing like this happen. Had I known it was for keeps, I would have been sure to stop by for one last toasted sesame with schmear. I wish someone with some cash  (if they really wanted to win people over) would see the worth in resurrecting H&H and preserving this bastion of New York City existence. Good bye, old friend. You really were like no other bagel in the world. We'll miss you. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

First and Ten. Hours.

I've never understood football. Growing up in suburban CT, this was a pretty important sport. But I didn't come from a very culturally sports-centric family. I remember attending a game or two, I think because my dad thought we should go just to get in the town spirit. Maybe as one of the only Jewish families this was something we had to do occasionally to pay dues for owning property there. I remember being cold. And bored. But pretty happy when one of the cheerleaders wore her uniform to school the next day, got the skirt caught in the potters' wheel in art class and went face first into the clay. If football could have been like that all the time, I was so there. But it wasn't. All that stopping and starting didn't seem to have a point. I knew they'd do just fine without me while I read a book or listened to Siouxsie and the Banshees instead. 

Admittedly, I'm a bit girlie sometimes. But I do like sports. I've always liked tennis and later in life I came to appreciate basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer. But football has always left me as cold as I felt in those bleachers. No matter how many times it was explained, it never connected. 

I'm one of those people who only watches the Super Bowl for the commercials and the halftime show if it's someone interesting. Prince was on fire that year, wasn't he? Even if a New York team is in it, I've never cared much. I've been happy for them and NYC!! NYC!!! and all, but actually WATCHING the game never interested me. It's a fantastic night to get into a good restaurant without a reservation. 

I've been persuaded to buy boxes at bars. I am such a great candidate for this tradition because I want to support the bar and hell yeah I want to win the pool. But even if you tell me what box # I have I will have no clue whether my score matches anything that happens in the game. I could totally win and have no idea. 

But last Sunday changed all that. What was meant to be a quick afternoon lunch at the Lobo, with maybe one or two margaritas for the when-in-Romaness of it, ended up being ten hours of community football watching. My pal Stephanie was there explaining the plays and the purpose behind them. The bar patrons were listening in and adding their pointers, joining in conversations until the action on the TV demanded an "OOOOOHH!" or "YESSSS" or "AWWWWWW." It was all starting to make sense and I got sucked in. There was tequila involved. And mezcal. It was a long ass day. Plus our bartender, Tim, was playing Siouxsie and the Banshees! Suddenly football and goth weren't mutually exclusive! 

The big game, of course, was the playoff between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. It advanced in little tense increments, and at a certain point it definitely could have gone either way. But the way this game works, apparently, there's a moment where it is definitely up to one team. Do or die. Make or break. Hail Mary. And that moment came with a field goal attempt by the Giants. That kick had to be perfect. Stephanie got us all to hold hands around the bar at that moment. No one breathed.

When the cheering subsided and the tequila was slammed, people who didn't know each other before this night were chatting, laughing and bonding (and slurring) together. We've just been through something. NYC!! NYC!!! It was fun! Giants in the Superbowl, baby, yeah! I'm definitely going to watch, even the actual game this time. 

Ow. OK, maybe not with quite so much agave distillate involved.