My friend Jim was planning a trip to New York City and asked if I knew a nice place where he could have breakfast with his children and grandchildren on the Upper West Side. Naturally, my first suggestion was Barney Greengrass -- "The Sturgeon King" -- a go-to deli for most visits to my former hometown.
Jim then asked what to order, which was a bit trickier. I suggested my favorites: nova lox and a side of chopped herring along with a toasted bialy and cream cheese. He blanched at the idea of chopped herring -- soured, no doubt, by the ubiquitous pickled herrings of his Midwest upbringing, but I assured him the chopped herring was a rare treat.
But then I recalled how the last time I ordered a toasted bialy at Barney Greengrass it was slightly under-toasted. So I advised Jim on the best way to order a toasted bialy.
Jim is Jewish, but grew up in rural Minnesota and now lives near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which practically makes him a Lutheran. Like a lot of Midwesterners, he is good-natured, has an ever-present smile, and a trusting soul; In other words, he's not a native New Yorker.
I told him to look the waiter square in the eye and say: "I'd like a bialy -- extra toasted." The key part was that he point his index finger at the waiter the exact moment he said "extra toasted" -- sort of like the way Donald Trump says "You're fired."
Jim practiced, but couldn't get the precise timing down. On his first attempt, he swung his forearm like he was casting a fishing rod. His vocals weren't much better either.
"I'd like a bialy, extra toasted, please," he said, with a wry smile under his bushy walrus mustache, sounding way too polite.
"Jim, they'll think you're from North Dakota," I said. "Try again -- only with less arm movement and more wrist," I suggested.
His next attempt was better, but he still sounded defensive, almost apologetic -- another common Midwestern characteristic. ("Excuse me, but I'm afraid you're stepping on my foot.")
I practiced a few more times with Jim until he got the exact motion in sync with the words. He now sounded firm and decisive, and I was confident his bialy would be properly toasted.
Several weeks later, I saw him again and asked if he'd gone to Barney Greengrass. He said he chose another place even closer to where he was staying with his kids on the Upper West Side. I was dubious. Midwesterners, as a rule, try to avoid conflict, and I suspect that Jim had decided after my stern instructions about how to order a toasted bialy that it just wasn't worth the aggravation.
Having lived in Wisconsin for nearly half my life, I have shed many of my New York mannerisms, including my East Coast accent and expressions. In fact, I feel I became a Midwesterner the moment I first set foot on the verdant campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison back in 1978.
But every time I return home to New York, all my adopted Midwestern behaviors seem to fly out the window. I become pushier, more impatient, and genuinely argumentative. I feel at home. It's almost as if once you enter the New York state line there's an invisible sign that says: "Welcome to New York. What's Your Problem?"
Once, I took my son, Max, to Barney Greengrass and got into an argument with one of the owners. The deli features great big pinwheel-sized flatbreads they call pletzels behind a glass display. I was certain a pletzel was a gnarly pumpernickel bialy. I had read an interview with Mimi Sheraton who suggested that a bialy pletzel was created when a Polish baker dropped dough on the ground and, in an aha! moment, instead of throwing it out, smeared it with onions and poppy seeds and baked it.
My son, who was raised in Wisconsin, argued, reasonably: "Dad, they own the place. They obviously know what they're talking about." But I wasn't convinced. Being from New York means having a strong opinion, even if your facts are a bit fuzzy. Or, as I often remind my more practical Midwestern wife: "I don't have to know what I'm talking about in order to have an opinion."
Shortly after moving permanently to Wisconsin in 1990, I visited Benji's, one of the few Jewish-style delis in Milwaukee. Benji, a bald man who reminded me of my late paternal grandfather "Poppy" from the Bronx, took my order. I asked if I could try a piece of nova lox, and Benji cut a sliver and handed it to me. He eyed me suspiciously as I took a taste.
"It's too salty," I said.
Benji gave me a frosty look that I have rarely seen outside of Manhattan.
"You're from New York, aren't you?" he said, wagging a bony finger at me.
I took his comment as a compliment.