On Our Christmas Eve Triumph, the Zabar’s “Trifecta”

24Dec07

The occasion: a brunch for eight in our Washington Heights apartment, scheduled to begin in exactly 3 hours and 48 minutes. Which is to say that it was 9:12 am and we were in the car racing south on the West Side Highway, having already vanquished the Fairway in West Harlem, where despite the early morning rush we barely broke a sweat procuring meyer lemons, Clementines, comice pears, scallions, hothouse cucumbers, campari tomatoes, fresh juice — orange and pomegranate — and a few other “non-essential” items; far more daunting, we acknowledged with twitching hands and eyelids as we exited the highway at 79th Street, would be to get home in less than three hours fully stocked with ample provisions to both maintain our reputation as a credible host and to inspire our guests — a group of work colleagues “stranded” in Manhattan over the holiday — with a spread from Zabar’s, which we had (perhaps a bit too cavalierly, it now seemed) already assured them would not only quell any homesickness, but surpass the quality of any such offering from their home cities (which included — and we could only shudder at the audacity of our claim in light of this — Paris, Berlin and Rome). In short, the honor of New York City seemed to hang in the balance, and though we could never pretend to be novices in the art of hosting — and at least in this regard we can note the table was already set — at this moment we were far from confident but at the same time more than willing to throw ourselves at the mercy of such epic and timelessly urban rituals.

No doubt this is why, contrary to the dictates of logic, we did not buy the goods a day earlier; in fact, we could only shake our head at this folly as we pulled up in front of the understated and slightly ridiculous Tudor facade that marks the Zabar’s complex on Broadway. But on a deeper level we wanted this challenge to be extreme, to prove that our years and years of training and study had paid off, so that we could finally ascend to the legendary ranks of the exalted few known to have achieved “The Trifecta,” i.e., the successful and concurrent negotiation of the three most important counter lines — namely fish, deli/meat/prepared foods, and cheese — at Zabar’s.

We wasted no time looking for a semi-illegal parking spot (e.g., in front of a hydrant on a side street) and cut off three taxis and a large, steaming truck in order to ram the car into the last remaining spot in the “no-standing” zone directly in front of the store. Although we had already seen the traffic cop circling the block like a shark, and on most days would have been more than deterred by the inevitable prospect of a $150 parking ticket, today we barely paused as we abandoned the car and rushed through the driving rain, completely focused on our mission.

We stepped through the doors and beheld the throngs. We willed ourselves not to dissolve into a pool of nervous tears — as we and so many others have done in the past –at the sight of so many souls with so much experience (many appeared to be hundreds of years old) lined up ten and twelve deep at every single counter. We contemplated the ordered frenzy of pushing and agitating for attention; the slowly rotating eddies of strong and mighty bubbes of every size and shape (and gender) effortlessly kibitzing with the countermen; of the forming (and breaking) alliances between customers, the instant camaraderie between “the orderers” — those whose lucky numbers had been called — and the torment of those still waiting.

More practically, we took a moment to check our ankle guards and remembered how years ago we had been “taken out” by a woman who severed our Achilles tendon with her shopping cart, leaving us no choice but to crawl from the store on our hands and knees, shamed by a chorus of jeers and knowing nods: obviously, only a neophyte would have been so careless as to expose an ankle at the checkout counter and thus deserved the punishment we had received. But now we dismissed the thought of our younger, more ignorant and faithless self; we exalted in the idea of resurrecting a scene we like to imagine is not so different than our dreams of the markets of prewar Vilna, Kiev, Odessa, Grodno and Frankfurt; of 1860 Paris, and fin-de-siecle Vienna; in short, we see ourselves in a city filled with souls as wildly determined as our own to resurrect times and places talked of but never known, keeping memories vital, lest they deliquesce from existence.

Ankles now secured, we return our attention to the task at hand; we begin by ignoring the Siren-like allure of the hundreds of cheeses maliciously placed by the management at the entrance to the store, and immediately dash to the fish counter, knowing from experience and statistical analysis that there is a 58 percent likelihood that this line will be the longest, and hence the most logical place to start. But even to get a number at the fish counter requires strength, cunning and agility! Several times our approach to the ticket dispenser is mercilessly blocked by a battalion of blunt-nosed carts strategically positioned by a mafia of shoppers known to “scalp” fish-counter tickets, an option — i.e., buying one — we might have considered but for the fact that many of these tickets are also known to be fakes, and as such are always cruelly rebuffed by the Zabar’s countermen. With no margin for error we need the real thing, and using our height to great advantage, we finally manage to reach over the desperate, outstretched hands circling the dispenser and grasp a genuine ticket; this we crumple into our fist while enduring the expected cascade of body blows as we retreat to a safe area near the coffee, one room over. We examine our number — 436 — which means (we can hear one of the fishmen calling out “342”) that approximately 100 customers must be served before us. To a less experienced shopper, this might have been a blow, but we were actually encouraged by our growing certainty that the fish line was in fact the longest in the store, which — if our strategy proved correct — would give us time to negotiate the deli and cheese counters as well as to get the necessary “off-the-shelf” items before concluding with the fish.

After catching our breath, we next obtained numbers from the deli (we were 80th on the line) and the relatively sedate cheese counter, where only 20 customers preceded us. This provoked our first serious dilemma: should we leave the cheese counter in search of the white-fish salad, chocolate babka, cream cheese (plain and scallion), amaretto-flavored lazzaroni di Saronno, herring in cream sauce, Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, and a few other things needed for the brunch? This always seems like a good idea, except experience has also taught us that to leave a line at Zabar’s is not only to risk losing your spot — in the event you don’t answer within one second of your number being called — but presents the danger of getting swept away in a riptide of customers that can leave you stranded for hours in say, the baked-goods room at the northern extremes of the store, or — most perilous of all — upstairs in the kitchenware section, a delusive purgatory from which no mortal has ever descended without having squandered at least two hours aggressively — jealously, even — perusing the incongruously well-stocked rows of appliances and cutlery while regretting the state of one’s kitchen.

Nevertheless, it seemed stupid not to use this to our advantage, and spotting a momentary gap in the crush of shoppers, we darted toward the white fish case and arrived in less than fifteen seconds, which gave us the luxury of waiting almost three extra minutes as the case was restocked with fresh containers dated two days earlier than those we had initially coveted. We forced ourselves to remain calm at this minor (but telling) victory, which was a good thing because — as so often happens at Zabar’s — our return route to the cheese counter had been cordoned off with an unexpected influx of shoppers, and so required us to wind our way through an open cash-register lane and back outside for several yards before we re-entered the store and made it back to the cheese counter with only one number left!

This was a close call, but fate now seems to be with us! Breathlessly we order our Pierre Robert and Pere Joseph before we return to the meat and fish room. At this point, with time to spare in both lines, we enter what in sporting terms is called “the zone” as we procure each of the above-listed off-the-shelf items with an ease and grace possessed by only the most experienced professionals. Returning to our spot near the fish counter, we commiserate with a woman whose husband was having a nervous breakdown: “You should have left him in the car!” we advise her. “I know,” she nods in despair. “He’s killing me!” Nevertheless we both laugh at a young man — in a black turtleneck and lambswool coat — who suddenly appears to ask in a show of fluttering fingertips and eyelids “Is this the line?” a shopworn trick that not even the most beautiful and insouciant can pull off in Zabar’s, where only the prospect of a free sample of duck pate can set hearts ablaze. Another man makes the mistake of tersely asking for his gravlox to be sliced “paper-thin” — as if they ever do anything but — which earns him an immediate ejection from the premises.

As expected, our deli number is called first, and we — still in a complete trance — order roast beef (very rare), turkey and a large container of Israeli health salad before we realize that our number for the fish counter has just been called! Teetering on the precipice of disaster in this Bermuda triangle, we somehow manage to respond to the fishman “two pounds of nova” before lunging back to the deli counter, where we call for 2 chicken Milanese.

As if we have been split in two, this somehow works, for in the next breath we are asking the fishman (and with some irritation and disbelief) if he’s actually out of smoked tuna, and — when this is confirmed — asking him if the sturgeon is moist. He provides a sample, which more than justifies the $48/pound price and leads us to order a half-pound before we remember the deli-man.

“Turkey meatballs,” we scream across the room.

“Anything else?” he asks when we stagger up to him a few seconds later. His tone suggests a growing impatience.

“No,” we answer, but then remember the cherry-cheese strudel, kept here at the far end of the counter. “Yes!” we yell and amend our request.

The man eyes us suspiciously: “Double-dipping?”

It is our moment of judgment. “Triple,” we confess before offering the more superficial explanation: “Brunch at one.”

“Triple!” he exclaims with a facetious degree of surprise. Still, he taps his watch in a gesture of understanding and winks at us. “I’ll tell you what,” he begins, his tone between a challenge and a leer. “I’ll leave your strudel at the end of the counter and you can pick them up after you get your fish.”

We thank the man with the implied twenty-dollar bill and stagger back to the fish counter just in time to receive our nova and sturgeon. The air remains heavy with expectation, but it is no longer ours; we pay and leave the store in record time. Outside the sidewalk is filled with people who all — ourselves among them! — appear ugly and crass; still, we smile at them, understanding the transformation — this alchemy of commerce and remembrance — that awaits inside.

Zabar's

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