I sometimes beat up on New York City unfairly. It is a wonderful city; among the top three or four in the world. I have a lot of friends who live in NYC, and I’ve always enjoyed the time I’ve spent there. I had a lovely day and a half there earlier this year, when I visited to attend a meeting.
One criticism I’ve heard from people who live north of the Mason-Dixon line is that Southerners tarry too long at the table. I don’t think this is a criticism leveled any more by New Yorkers than by people from Wyoming, or Pennsylvania, or Illinois, but the popular conception is that there is a “Puritan work ethic” in the Northeast, and that in New Orleans all three of those words are anathema.
Those are oversimplifications of course, but there’s some truth to the idea that people in New Orleans take things a bit easier than people in New York City. I suspect that opinions on which is the better approach to life vary by area code. I know I shouldn’t be annoyed when someone from NYC comes down here and discovers that yes, we do have kale, or writes something ostensibly positive that’s nevertheless so condescending it’s offensive. But I do get annoyed when that happens, and I also get unduly amused when I read something like the “Ode to the Buttered Roll” article that my wife pointed out to me this evening.
In the event you have exceeded your monthly ration of New York Times articles for August already, or if you object to reading the Times generally, I will summarize: the writer, Sadie Stein, likes the idea of the buttered roll, though perhaps not the thing itself, and considers it emblematic of the city. A buttered roll, for those who are not life-long New Yorkers, is a Kaiser roll spread with butter or margarine. This was the subject of a thousand or so word piece in the Grey Lady on Tuesday.
When I first read it, I thought I’d been pranked. Perhaps I’d inadvertently clicked on a link to “nytimez.com” or something. Maybe there’s a new tradition where jokes are made on August 1st instead of April 1st, I thought. But no. The article is legitimate.
My next thought was that it would be very difficult to satirize a piece in which the author, name-dropping Proust, writes: “Part of the appeal is that they’re hard to screw up. Even if the roll is less than fresh, or prepared with margarine, or the filling is bizarrely distributed, the final product is somehow, magically, edible.”
A less than fresh Kaiser roll spread unevenly with margarine may very well be edible, but it’s not magic, and it’s sure as hell not something worth celebrating. It’s like giving a participation medal for showing up. “Here you go Buttered Roll, thanks for being edible and not causing explosive diarrhea!”
There are a few references in Ms. Stein’s article from people who remember a better time, when the butter was actually butter, and the rolls were crisp-crusted and airy inside:
“The whole charm of these is that they were basically hollow,” said the food writer Arthur Schwartz, a Brooklyn native. “The rolls really were crunchy, and very light. It’s not so delicious anymore: The butter’s not butter, and the roll’s not crisp.”
I would happily eat the roll described by Mr. Schwartz of Brooklyn. I might even eat one of the sad, shadow-rolls about which Ms. Stein waxes, given a sufficiently inebriated state. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t brag about it the next day, though, or become prone to fits of nostalgia.
And this in the same edition of the paper in which Pete Wells reviews a Sichuan restaurant that I would dearly love to visit, but almost certainly never will.
I get that taste is subjective and we all get weepy over different things. I’m sure there’s a New Orleans analogue, but I can’t think of one. I’m not talking about things you don’t like – I’m not a huge fan of King Cakes with tons of frosting, for example, but I wouldn’t put them in the category of “stale bread with faux-butter.” Some people mock Lucky Dogs, but those people are wrong and probably spies for North Korea. I’m missing some obvious choices, I suspect, but I’m weary and have children to attend.
Leave me some suggestions in the comments, if you would be so kind?