I stand crowded into a small space in front of a refrigerated display case on the far wall of Zabar’s bakery section handing out tiny triangles of Baltic-style rye bread. These tidbits have the tough black crust, firm black-brown interior and fermented sour-sweet flavor characteristic of rye breads baked in the countries that hug the Baltic Sea. My husband comes from this long- suffering region. His quixotic little company, Black Rooster Food, markets the kind of rye bread favored in Latvia, his homeland. It is because of him and his love of rye bread and because of our marriage that I am standing in Zabar’s, the Upper West Side’s of Manhattan’s iconic grocery, handing out samples of rye bread on a bright Saturday in October.
Not for the feint of heart– Zabars on a busy Saturday. The store swarms with foraging food lovers. A propulsive flow of energy pushes these native New Yorkers through a maze of aisles, past racks and display counters singing siren songs of edible temptation. I stand in the back adjacent to a heavy swinging door on one of the store’s two east-west passageways. Now and then a tall, sweet-faced Dominican shouting, “Coming through. Come through,” grazes my display table with his cart. Still, I am strategically placed. To get from one side of store to the other, from hand-dipped ricotta to aged Balsamic, from hand-carved Nova Scotia salmon to air cured Spanish ham, customers have to pass directly in front of my little table.
“Care to taste a traditional sourdough rye bread,” I ask each and every one of them. “It’s an Old World recipe. Hand-made made with 100 percent whole grain rye flour. “
Fast moving even on Saturday, customers race by me. Some seize pieces of bread on the fly like marathoners grabbing a cup of water from an outstretched hand. Others slow to a stop as they pop a tidbit into their mouths. Maybe one in ten picks up a package of bread from the display rack. Black Rooster Food, they say. Cute logo, they say. They check out the price. (Handmade foodstuffs are not cheap.) Often they drop the package into their basket. Sometimes they do not.
“Care to taste a traditional sourdough rye, “I ask the next and the next.
A pretty woman in her mid-40s with large blue eyes and black hair stops and peers at the 2 kilo (5 pounds) bread on my table. Her eyes caress the black loaf, as big and as bulky as a small turkey.
“Our bread fights back when you bite into, “I say with a laugh. “And rye is intensely nutritious.”
“I buy this bread every week,” she says dismissing my sales pitch. “I know about good bread. I used to own a bakery. We baked rye bread.” I struggle to place her accent. German? As we chat she drops one, two, and then three quarter loaves of our neatly packaged bread into her basket. No, not German. Israeli. Her accent is Israeli.
“Where was your bakery?” I ask. “In Tel Aviv?”
“No it was in Queens,” she says. “Queens, New York. But I learned about rye bread in Israel. My grandmother escaped from Poland and settled in Herzelia, in the north. She owned a beauty shop. I went there after school. Next store was a bread bakery. The fragrance of just baked rye bread filled my grandmother’s shop. That’s what I remember. The mouth-watering smell…
“This is the healthiest bread in the world,” says a blondish woman with flyaway hair picking up a package of bread and reading the label. She throws the loaf into her basket.
The two women stand at my table extolling the virtues of rye bread. It’s nutritional superiority to all other breads. (Rye flour is far more nutritious than wheat.) It’s three week shelf life. It’s high fiber content. It’s sour earthy taste. So delicious accompanying so many foods, especially those of northern Europe.
Their conversation draws a crowd. I say nothing –why should I, when these customers are doing my job?—but when the subject changes to eating rye bread for breakfast, I join in. Our talk becomes an improvisational riff, a jazz song celebrating the first meal of the day. We three like our rye bread:
Thin sliced with peanut butter and black currant jam
Dripping with raw honey and almond butter
Bubbling with melted Jarlsberg and topped with Dijon mustard.
Sopping up the yolk of an organic soft boiled egg…
Slipped under a fried egg, the bright broken yoke saucing a slice of rye bread
Oh, yes, and the pork-eaters among us (namely me) love our rye bread soaking up the fat oozing from thick slices of slab bacon.
A small group surrounds us waiting to hear more. Food talk, like food writing, provides its own form of pleasure, its own form of sustenance. One after another these bystanders drop packages of rye bread into their baskets, and I receive an on-the-job lesson in real time viral marketing.
The bits of bread on my tray are disappearing fast. I have brought a non-serrated chef’s knife with me to cut more. The proper tool easily slices through the tough black crust that is formed by the bread’s exposure to the oven’s first blast of high heat— later the oven temperature is lowered so the interior can bake. I carve a dozen slices of bread, subdividing them into many small triangles, each with bit of crust. (To judge the excellence of any bread your teeth need to make contact with the crust and the interior.)
I go back to handing out samples.
“Care to taste an authentic old world rye bread?” I ask. “Made with100 percent rye flour. No wheat at all.”
“I hate rye bread,” a woman in a red sweater says defiantly as she scurries towards the pastry.
“Yuck,” says a small woman looking for a place to spit. She looks as if she might be from Indonesian. Or Sri Lanka. She searches her purse for a tissue. “Here I say,” handing her a small napkin. She starts to apologize. “No need,” I tell her. “Food is a vocabulary. If you speak a different language, the food of an unknown culture can be repelling.”
A young guy carrying a bike helmet picks up a quarter loaf, peers at the label. He tells me that he bakes bread at home. “I’ve tried to make rye bread like this. But no can do. Rye flour is sticky and miserable to work with…”
Which is why most rye breads contain some wheat, I respond. The wheat makes the dough easier to work. This bread is different. It’s made of 100 percent rye…
“No wheat. Does that mean your bread is Gluten free?” asks a slender woman with one of those surgically-altered, characterologically-discontented faces one sees in wealthy urban enclaves.
“Rye has less gluten than wheat bread, but it is not gluten free….
She picks up a loaf, looks carefully at the label and then returns it, with a small shudder, to the display rack. “I never eat bread,” she says, her tone reminding me of a guest at a long ago dinner party who turned her wine glass upside down to indicate that she preferred not to imbibe. (As was the case then, I am riled by the aggressive self satisfaction of the abstemious.)
I sigh, knowing they come in waves, these bread-haters.
“This bread has salt,” chimes in a well-dressed guy in his 30’s, his voice accusatory.
“All bread has salt,” I answer. “Flour. Water. Salt.”
“This bread has too much salt,” he replies.
I surreptitiously check my watch.
“This here is pumpernickel bread,” states an older guy in a blue fleece and running shoes. He’s wrong, but he asserts his opinion so definitively that I decide to site sources.
Lots of different breads are called pumpernickel,” I tell him. “There’s a German bread made with coarse ground rye that food scholar Andrea Fadani believes is the original pumpernickel—this bread is steamed rather than baked and has no discernible crust. Gil Marks, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, has his own ideas. He says pumpernickel is a sourdough bread from Poland made with wheat and a medium-fine grade of rye. According to Gil Marks, what Americans call Jewish rye is really Polish pumpernickel.”
“Girlie, This here is pumpernickel,” says the blue fleece guy pointing to stacked up loaves of rye bread in the basket next to my table as he walks away.
“Can I take another piece?” asks a tall young woman. She pops the bread in her mouth and a dreamy look of love and memory crosses her face. “My grandmother was born in Sweden and she baked bread like this. She made open face sandwiches. My favorite was egg salad with fresh dill and cucumber.”
I explain that our bread comes from Latvia, which is located directly across the Baltic Sea from Sweden. So it’s not surprising her grandmother’s bread would taste like ours. Fact is: rye grows better than wheat in cold wet climates and, for this reason, rye bread is the staple food of all the countries facing the Baltic. Russia too. (Perhaps this rye bread eating habit explains why women in northeastern Europe are so good looking. Just think of all those fair haired Eastern European models with their ostentatiously long legs, they were weaned on rye bread. They teethed on it. Sometimes when I get bored , I tell customers if they eat Black Rooster rye they will turn into tall skinny blonds.)
As if to prove my point, a pretty blond woman (not tall), picks up a bit of bread and sniffs. “I know this bread. It’s rupmaize,” she says using the Latvian word for whole grain sourdough rye.
“You must be Latvian,” I say.
“Yes,” she says, “My parents were born there and we have relatives there. when I go to visit I take an empty suitcase that I fill with rye bread…
“And you get stopped by customs, right?” I ask, knowing the answer.
“Yes, the bomb-sniffing dogs go crazy…
The Latvian woman and I chat and I tell her that Black Rooster food is my husband’s company and that he was born in Latvia too. She wants to know his name. The Latvian émigré community in the U.S. is pretty small and they all seem to know each other.
Janis Melngailis. (In high school he anglicized Janis to John.)
Isn’t he some sort of scientist? she asks, proving my point about all Latvians knowing each other.
“He’s a physicist. A professor of electrical engineering at the University of Maryland. Rye bread isn’t John’s career. It’s his mission,” I say. “His passion.”
Because she is interested I fill her in on a little of the back story: How John hates American bread. How he’s convinced white bread is the root of American health problems. Obesity. Diabetes. Crooked teeth. (Teeth need to gnaw on hard foods to grow straight.) For years John dreamed of introducing real rye bread here in the United States but didn’t know how to go about it. Then about five years ago, he joined forces with a colleague from the business school. The two of them started air freighting rye bread from Riga to Washington, DC where we live and selling it to Whole Foods and other local stores. Every other week John would drive to Dulles Airport in a huge truck –rentals, we learned, come in two sizes: too big and too small. Anyway he would leave the university, pick up the truck and drive to Dulles Airport where he’d back into the loading dock where he’d pick up palettes of rye bread that he repackaged by hand and delivered to his customers. Then the price of jet fuel increased, air freight costs skyrocketed and importing bread from overseas became impossible. So that was the end of the air freight business. John’s not a baker himself, but eventually he found an artisanal baker in Brooklyn –a Russian guy named Gennady—who had never made bread without wheat, but he was willing to experiment. John gave him the recipe. It took a number of attempts, but pretty soon Gennady mastered the craft and began turning out Latvian rye bread that John is marketing in New York, Boston and in Washington.
The Latvian woman picks up a package of our bread.
Black Rooster Food?, she says contemplating the stylish black rooster logo designed by our eldest daughter’s husband equivalent. (Modern family relations are indeed complex: Ilze is John’s birth daughter and my stepdaughter, but “stepdaughter” seems insufficient to describe our close relationship. Her husband equivalent, Yucel, was born in Turkey. It is he who designed the logo.)
“Melngailis means black rooster in Latvian,” I say. “So the name was a natural.”
As is always the case when the conversation with a customer gets interesting, a couple of people stop to listen.
A middle aged man in a tweed jacket standing off to the side looks at me knowingly and says, “But you are not Latvian, are you?” Inwardly I sigh. I know where he is coming from.
“No, I am Jewish. All four of my grandparents were Litvaks.” (Jews with roots in Lithuanian who settled in nearby Belarus.) “Litvaks, like Latvians favor breads made with rye and a bit of caraway. You might say rye bread ties John’s and my “mixed marriage” together. For his ancestors and for mine rye bread was the staff of life, the staple food that kept them alive in hard times.
The guy in the tweed jacket doesn’t buy my exogamous view of the world. “I can’t see that Jews and Latvians have much in common,” he says without a trace of a smile.
They pain me, these allusions to the enmity between Latvians and Jews—recently some guy just came right out and told me Latvians were Jew-killers and I had no business pitching Latvian bread…
“History weighs on us all,” I say and turn my attention to cutting more bread. There’s a pause in the flow of customers. Then a chap in a belted brown leather coat approaches.
“May I,” he asks, as he picks a bit off bread off my little white tray. He pauses. “This bread is delicious, he says.
“It goes well with the smoked salmon in your basket,” I say. I watch him to pick up two quarter loaves of Baltic rye and drop them in his basket. He doesn’t leave, though. He lingers at my table. Not bad looking. Fifty maybe. With a kind face.
My husband owns this company I tell him and we often serve rye bread with smoked salmon when we are entertaining. Lately, though, we have been branching out. We’ve begun serving rye bread with herring.
I’ve said the magic word.
“Herring! He says. Herring! I love herring. I’m having a party tonight. Do you think I could serve herring? What should I do,” he asks. “How should I serve it?”
“We slice the bread thin. There are lots of different kinds of herrings you can buy. Some are pickled. Some are not. We like sampling a few. We cut the herring into small pieces, top them with a dollop of sour cream serve and serve these tidbits with a thimble full of ice cold vodka.
Now I’ve really got his attention. I get the distinct feeling this guy is newly single.
“Will you come to my house tonight and help me serve?” he asks.
(The answer, delivered with kindness, is no, but I can give you more recipes for serving Black Rooster Rye Bread. And yes, in case you are wondering, I am far enough from my prime to be flattered by the attention.)
After my gentleman caller departs, the loaves in the display rack disappear quickly, and soon I have come close to selling out Zabar’s weekly supply of our bread. Chatting with customers these past three hours, it has once again struck me how many New Yorkers are haunted by the culinary past. How even those like me who were born in the United States with roots extending back to Eastern Europe have this culinary longing for a time when sour dough rye was not an exotic heirloom, but standard fare. The bread one ate every day with real food: herring, sardines, butter, borscht, sausage, beef and barley soup…
As I pack up and prepare to depart a nice looking fellow in a well fitting blazer with Finno-Ugric eyes swings by my display table late and takes a sample of bread.
“I know this bread. I grew up on this bread.” He closes his eyes and takes another bite, letting the firm flesh of the bread melt in his mouth. A smile crosses his face and travels to his now opened eyes. His face relaxes. I recognize his look. His Proustian look. He does not like this bread. He loves this bread. The bread of memory. The bread of the lost motherland. The bread of earthly goodness.
“Can I really buy this bread here?” he asks
“Yes you can.”
“Yes,” I say. “You can by this bread every week.”
And then he does the most unexpected thing. He leans over and kisses the lapel of my purple corduroy blazer. This is not a flirtatious gesture.
“Thanks you,” he says. “Thank you for selling this bread.”
I stand there flabbergasted and moved. Understanding as never before that rye bread, that bit of stuff hoarded by Ivan Denisovitch in the gulag, that long-lasting loaf shoved in the hold of ships to feed sailors plying the Baltic, that precious staff of life hidden in the swaddling clothes of newborns in the hopes that this child will never go hungry, that most practical and yet mystical bread has been for millions of souls life itself and so much more. History. Memory. Culture. The very body of God himself. So moving is the understanding that washes over me, that washes through me that I, rarely at a loss for words, have nothing to say except, “You are welcome.”