Thu 10 2017 , by

Bygone Buttered Rolls?

On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like the common coffee-accompanying buttered roll has become bygone from NYC and the surrounding areas of NJ and Connecticut in any measurable way. However, in many cases they aren’t what they used to be, and finding them made properly (with a fresh, handmade Kaiser roll and real salted butter) is becoming a lot more iffy. While buttered rolls can still be bought as such in many small shops, diners, and sidewalk coffee carts throughout the city, the general consensus is that since bygone days (mid-20th century) in the majority of cases the quality of the rolls has gone down due to modern developments such as the disappearance of smaller, regional/local bakeries, leading to the mass production and the lack of freshness and quality of the hard rolls, and lack of knowledge of how they are “supposed” to be has led to rolls without the requisite crispy crust or poppy seeds on top. Then there is the butter, or lack thereof: the more frequent use of margarine of varying taste and mouthfeel by those who sell them, topped off by vendors wrapping them in plastic wrap in deference to modern sanitary sensibilities but giving the rolls the savor of the plastic. The comments section from this NY Times article about the phenomena of buttered Kaiser rolls or “butter rolls” as they are called in popular parlance is revealing: besides having arrived in NYC via “The Vienna Model Bakery” in 1870, which also brought commercial yeasted bread to the city, they derived from German/Austrian Jewish cuisine: one commentator reveals that her father called them “jew rolls” when at home, but not to appear anti-Semitic, ordered “hard rolls” from the local bakery. (In many cases, a local bakery was involved in the production of good old fashioned rolls with butter as they ought to have been-it is the scarcity of general purpose local bakeries that has been partly responsible for the taste and quality of buttered rolls becoming more frequently bygone.) How are the bastardized versions that have become widely available in our time still selling? For the same reason the original and better-tasting ones did: they might be the only thing some people can afford to eat all day. They are cheap and filling, though of dubious nutritional value. —

Ode to the Buttered Roll, That New York Lifeline

It can be hard to explain the appeal of a buttered roll.

Unlike the breakfast sandwich or the cruller, the humble buttered roll makes no claims to lusciousness. It’s not really greater than the sum of its parts: a round roll, sliced and slathered with butter. There is no alchemy involved.

And yet, like many New Yorkers, I’ve breakfasted all my life on buttered rolls, wrapped in plastic, foil or wax paper and sold for about a dollar at any corner deli, bodega or coffee cart.

Do I love them? No. That is not really the point. I love that they exist, an unsung, charmingly ordinary hero of the city’s mornings.

Though of course bread and butter are eaten all over, the buttered roll (or roll with butter, as it is known in parts of New Jersey) is a distinctly local phenomenon. Mention its name outside the New York metropolitan area and you would very likely be met with blank incomprehension.

“Never heard of it growing up in Chicago,” said Michael Stern, a chronicler of regional fare and an author of the “Roadfood” book series, “and really not much beyond Fairfield County in Connecticut.” (Indeed, one can roughly trace the expansion of the buttered roll to the migration of New Yorkers to surrounding commuter suburbs.)

In New York City itself, buttered rolls are a perennial: Like a working character actor, they are everywhere you look without realizing it. No one has tried to reinvent the buttered roll, or jazz it up or export it — the idea just wouldn’t occur. Still, it unobtrusively endures.

“It’s one of the most popular things I sell, absolutely,” said Peter Cherevas, who has had a coffee cart stationed at 86th Street and Broadway for the past 27 years. Sales, he said, are “very, very consistent — more than bagels.”

“Bagels have slacked off; buttered rolls have not,” he continued. “Small coffee, milk one sugar, you’re good.”

Mr. Cherevas typically sells four dozen buttered rolls a day, to a diverse group of customers: young and old, suits and hard hats. “Everyone!” he said. “They’re all New Yorkers, though, not tourists.”

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.

“You can’t go just anywhere in New York and get a decent breakfast sandwich,” the chef Wylie Dufresne said. “You certainly can’t guarantee a good bagel. But you can go into any bodega, get a buttered roll.”

It’s not that straightforward, though. If you ask New Yorkers about it, as I did, the effect can be practically Proustian. “Hang on, let me write a novel about this,” responded one friend, who (apparently overcome with emotion) then failed to do so. Another friend’s father recalled a song at a 1968 Hunter high school sing-in featuring the lyrics “Gristedes takes a cut a every roll and buttah.” (Unconfirmed.) My husband, as a

young editor at the book publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, often saw Roger Straus Jr., one of the company’s founders, buy a buttered roll and coffee regular from the coffee cart in front of the building, part of his morning routine.

“I loved and relied on them when I was very broke and young and coffee still only came from a cart or a deli,” the chef Gabrielle Hamilton said. “I was always annoyed that they didn’t spread the butter evenly, so you had to eat a dry outer ring until you got to the center, where you got a gross mouthful of too much butter — if it even was butter. Still, it was a lifeline.”

Peter Elliot, an editor at Bloomberg, recalled that for his class-conscious father, buttered rolls were too unsophisticated, and banned in their East Side home.

The origins of the butter roll are cloaked in mystery, or perhaps mere lack of curiosity. I approached five historians of New York food, all of whom admitted they had never considered the roll’s place in the city’s foodscape. It belongs instead to a certain kind of anecdotal lore. That said, there are certain facts. The first such rolls would have arrived in New York in the

1870s, along with Louis Fleischmann’s Vienna Model Bakery, which brought commercial yeasted bread to the city. The buttered roll apparently became popular with German Jews (and later, Eastern European Jews) as a filling, inexpensive dairy meal, in accordance with kosher law.

When the 20th century brought us the commuter breakfast, the buttered roll was ready to take its place on office coffee carts and at takeout windows.

Order a buttered roll and you’ll invariably be handed a kaiser. But ask old-time New Yorkers, and they will swear up and down that today’s model is a pale version of the remembered “Vienna” or “hard rolls,” a smaller, cornmeal-bottomed pastry with an open crumb and a shatteringly crisp crust.

“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.”

Today’s roll, true, is rarely fresh-baked. Often the crust is slackened by its plastic wrapping, which some feel imparts a chemical flavor. (Paper was de rigueur, once upon a time.) Most rolls sold at delis and coffee carts come from a few large distributors; New Yorker, a distributor based in Astoria, Queens, provides about half of the rolls sold by vendors. A manager there estimated the output at about 700 dozen rolls a day, five days a week.

And then there is the butter. It’s still possible to find a roll spread with the genuine article (Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in the Flatiron district sells an admirable specimen), but many carts and bodegas stock a less expensive butter-flavored spread. Although plenty of vendors spread their rolls in advance for easy morning turnover, others prepare each roll to order from a large tub of spread, heavily daubing the roll’s lower half with an expert flick of the knife.

To some purists, a buttered roll made with “spread” is not worth eating. “The entire point is a roll spread with real, sweet butter,” said Christina Harcar, a fifth-generation New Jerseyan. “The day they switched to margarine, in the ’70s, is the day my grandmother ate her last buttered roll.”

Still, it’s not a hard taste to acquire. A vendor who has run a coffee cart in Midtown East since 2009 said he had never had a buttered roll before moving to New York from Karachi, Pakistan. Now, though?

“I eat one every day,” he said. “Small coffee and one buttered roll. It’s easy.”

Copyright © 2011-2017 Bygone NYC - All Rights Reserved