The Big Apple’s history and identity is best explored through its food – dishes given a new home by waves of immigrant communities and turned into New York City icons.
The hot dog
The mark of any decent regional food is a turf war, and for almost 100 years the humble dog has been splitting New Yorkers’ allegiances. European butchers brought the dog to New York in the 1800s and Charles Feltman of Germany first set up a pushcart on the Coney Island seashore in 1870. In 1916, a former employee, Nathan Handwerker, opened a shop across the street, offering hot dogs at half the price and putting his ex-boss out of business. Nathan’s annual hot-dog-eating contest has been running each 4 July ever since, and while Chicago has its ‘dragged through the garden’ dog, Dallas its corn dog and LA its Pink’s chilli dogs, New York’s dogs are perhaps the most famous.
The turf war still rumbles on. In 1973, Papaya King had been touting its original combination of hot dog and papaya drink for 41 years, when a former partner opened Gray’s Papaya. And it’s certainly made its stamp, featuring in productions such as You’ve Got Mail, Sex and the City and Glee, and in the unlikely-sounding song ‘Bum Rush at Gray’s Papaya’ by Bugout Society.
Its leafy streets lined with beaux arts, Baroque, neo-Gothic and postwar residences, the Upper West Side is better known for its architecture than its dining scene, but Gray’s Papaya’s 24-hour Broadway branch draws in the masses. Decorated in lurid red and yellow, it’s plastered with cheery signs reading ‘No gimmicks! No bull!’ and ‘Famous hot doggery’. But you can’t argue with ‘Best damned frankfurter you ever ate’. Gray’s does a classic NYC frank: all-beef in a natural casing, which is grilled (no dirty-water dogs here) and served on a toasted bun with sauerkraut and spicy brown mustard. The real blessing is the price: Gray’s famous recession special is a mere $4.95 for two grilled dogs and a drink.
Midtown screams classic ‘New York, New York’. The borough is home to the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building, proud embodiments of the American dream for so many new arrivals. And it’s here that Zucker’s Bagels, a more humble establishment, with cream, metro-tiled walls and a handwritten menu, quietly goes about the business of providing a quintessential taste of the city.
Jewish bagels are thought to have originated in Krakow in the 17th century and were brought to the Lower East Side by Polish Jewish immigrants in the 1880s. Bagel bakeries became so ubiquitous in the district that a union was established to protect its workers and the craft of the handmade bagel. Come the 1960s, the bread went mainstream with the invention of automated baking machines and pre-sliced bagels. At Zucker’s, the bagel has gone full circle: the ring of plain-yeast dough made with unbleached flour and sweetened with malt syrup is hand-rolled and kettle-boiled. The result is a sweet bread with a crust that’s chewy but not heavy.
The New York bagel of choice is smoked salmon and cream cheese: in the 1930s a Kraft marketing campaign successfully promoted the bagel and cream cheese combo, while lox (thinly sliced smoked salmon) was sold from pushcarts on the Lower East Side by Jewish immigrants back in the early 1900s. Now, Zucker’s gets its kosher salmon from Williamsburg’s Acme Smoked Fish, whose founder Harry Brownstein emigrated from Russia in 1905 and sold smoked fish in New York from his horse-drawn wagon. Today, The Traditional Sandwich – a bagel filled with Nova Scotia smoked salmon, plain cream cheese, Lucky’s beefsteak tomatoes, red onions and capers, served with a pickle and coleslaw – has breathed new life into a New York classic.