On the Jewish food scene: Zabar’s

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Confession: I have never been to Zabar’s. I remember visiting an appetizing store (more on that in a minute) when visiting relatives in Brooklyn when I was a kid; the thing that really impressed me the most was the pickles in a barrel. (OK, I’m still impressed when I see pickles in a barrel.) Since there are many New York City gourmet food stores I’ve never visited, why do I mention Zabar’s? Well, I just finished reading “Zabar’s: A Family Story, With Recipes” by Lori Zabar (Schoken Books) and she not only made the store sound very impressive, but her discussion of the food that the store offers made me hungry. 

First, why am I talking about this book in a food column, rather than my regular book review column? While the author writes her family’s history, the real focus of the book is the store. There are more descriptions of her family’s obsession with food than with their personal life. Marriages and divorces are given less space than arguments between partners about running the store. Family photos appear in black and white on regular pages, while the glossy centerfold color photos feature food from the store, including a wide variety of smoked fish, cheeses, coffees and baked goods, along with a picture of one of Zabar’s gift baskets. (I don’t even want to think about how much that beautiful spread costs, but if someone is interested in buying it, I’d be happy to help them eat it.) At the end of the book, the biographies featured are not those of family members, but long-term workers who are currently helping to guide the store.

Getting back to the appetizing store: the sections where the author discusses the history of food in New York City were the most interesting parts of the book. For example, what is the difference between an appetizing store and a delicatessen? According to “Zabar’s,” “the initial late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century distinction between a delicatessen (which sold cured and prepared meat, such as pastrami, corned beef, tongue, salami, hot dogs, roast beef, brisket, and chopped liver) and an appetizing store (which sold smoked, cured and pickled fish, including salmon, lox, herring, and whitefish, as well as cheese, butter, and bagels) was created for religious reasons. Kosher-keeping customers would not purchase meat and dairy products from the same store because knives that sliced pastrami could not also be used to cut Swiss cheese, and platters that held deli meat could not later be used for herring in cream sauce.” The author notes Zabar’s labeled itself as kosher style and, as the years passed, sold non-kosher items that would not have originally been found in the store.

She also describes the difference between types of smoked salmon and how the family carefully picks products, including the beans used to make coffee. The store has changed over time, with the youngest generations adding more help-yourself options – food already placed in containers so customers didn’t have to stand in line and wait for the counterman. However, for some people, those interactions with food specialists is what makes visiting the store fun.

Will I ever visit Zabar’s? Maybe if I ever travel to Manhattan again. It sounds as much of a tourist attraction as a grocery store, but to the legions who love it – some famous ones, too (and the author was not above dropping names) – making regular pilgrimages to the store is a must. Those who prefer not to travel can read “Zabar’s” for their virtual food fix.