I was living in New Haven when I audited Joe Heller’s playwriting course. I was dying to learn how to be a writer. But Joe talked about Zabar’s. Actually he bragged about his proximity to the greatest delicatession in the world. He was unseemly in his pride. He wagged an immortal finger—one that typed Catch-22 by night for twelve years on his kitchen table. “This orange drink here at Yale is terrible.” He raised his voice, “Zabar’s fresh orange juice is the best in the world, And it’s only a few blocks from my apartment.” When he wasn’t talking about the wonders of, say, Zabar’s cheeses, he bragged about New York, “ Everbody’s a little Irish, a little Jewish and more than a little black.
I wrote down every word.
Raised in Philadelphia I suspected from the expressions of envy on my mother’s face that we were second best to Manhattan. The whole picture snapped into focus in Joe Heller’s Yale classroom.
I had to get myself to the big city.
When it became clear that my then–husband wasn’t going to get tenured at Yale I persuaded him to take a position at Columbia. The first thing I did after unpacking half our cartons in our new apartment on 119th street by Morningside Park was to race down Broadway to Zabar’s.
I stepped inside, it felt more exciting than a museum. I sampled fig/olive tapannade and my first sliver of the great Reggio Parmesan cheese. (Everything I know about cheese, I learned by sampling Zabar’s wares—from raw milk French farmhouse Brie to aged Spanish Manchego.) I also discovered fresh potato leek soup, warm-from-the-oven bagels, raisin nut pumpernickel, and chocolate Rugelach.
Joe Heller was right. The piece de resistance is fresh, fresh orange juice squeezed and placed on shelves five times a day.
It’s absolutely gorgeous at $2.19 a bottle. “How sweet it is,” as Jackie Gleason used to say. Better than any gelato or baby cupcake in all of Philadelphia or New Haven.
Zabar’s orange juice is my secret Friday afternoon reward after a week of pouring my brains into my writing. I also choose one section of the store to study like books on a library shelf. And like the city itself, it always surprises me.
I proudly carry a Zabar’s canvas bag, orange letters screaming my allegance.
I also love exploring the mezzanine for housewares. It’s part of the great market in the great marketplace city. I defy anybody to find new Peugeot salt and pepper grinders, or, for that matter, Cuisinart stainless steel pots for less money. I recently discovered a measuring cup that also weighs its contents. There are gadgets for steaming wrinkles from clothing for every budget. I covet a children’s knife that looks like a dog. It cuts soft food not fingers.
One touching thing about Zabar’s is the way we customers who push open the doors become an instantaneous community. We smile at each other, chat, and profer foodie tips about the many varieties of smoked salmon as well as a sale about to be announced on the loud speaker system of tasty brown rice sushi.
My favorite social Zabar’s moment came a while back when I bumped into Joe Heller as we were passing by canvas bags filled with aromatic coffee beans from all over the world. He rolled his eyes at me, shifted his Stimudent toothpick, “Having fun?”
I nodded and smiled a lot, too shy to say I was having a blast here in no small part because of him.