Ode to a giant saltstick

A beloved bakery changes hands, and the Hungarian heart of New York takes a body blow. Will those nomad barbarians ever learn?


Andrew Leonard
November 28, 2007 1:35AM (UTC)

Europe in miniature, which withstood for so long the encroachments of standardizing Americanization and gave a peculiar touch of quaintness and individuality to New York's kaleidoscopic east side, is yielding. Yorkville, for well-nigh two decades known to connoisseurs of east side life as the exclusive domain of Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, and Germans, is slowly giving up its strongly accentuated Central European character and gradually merging into a state of colorless impersonality.

Emery Deri, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 26, 1926: "Alien Yorkville Reenters the Union: Foreign Charm of New York's Upper East Side Fades as Old Racial Groups Migrate"

"Do you have any giant saltsticks today?" I asked, worriedly scanning the shelves at Orwasher's Bakery, located at 308 East 78th Street, between First and Second Avenues.

"No," said the cashier. "We don't make 'em any more."

I was staggered.

"You don't make them anymore?"

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"Not since the new ownership."

I felt the ground shudder beneath my feet.

"New ownership? When did that happen?"

"A month ago."

The little cafés where patrons used to sit all day long playing cards, closing business deals or debating the affairs of their communities are dying out or being changed into ordinary American eating places. The "Nachtlokals," where versatile harpianists and dark-faced gypsies used to entertain patrons, are putting up a battle for existence by catering to adventure-seeking west side people, who are more interested in hearing the latest jazz numbers than the sweet-sad Hungarian melodies or the sentimental old German tunes.

A giant saltstick is a 2-foot-long loaf of bread with a remarkable soft and luscious interior protected by a flinty hard, pastry-spiral-shaped lavishly salt-strewn crust. For salt aficionados, it is verily the Bread of the Gods. And it is sui generis -- I have wandered across the entire planet in search of salty goodness, and nowhere have I seen a true giant saltstick outside of the confines of Orwasher's Bakery. Although not as famous as the raisin-pumpernickel rolls -- invented, so the legend goes, by Louis Orwasher, the second of three generations of family bakers -- the giant saltstick was, to me, inexpressibly precious. I am used to the relentless encroachment of the new, accustomed to surfing, as best I can, in the pipeline of creative destruction that inexorably plows history under. But this was too much to bear. To hear that "new ownership" had done away with the saltstick was to feel all at once, without any preparation, a sense of loss and utter powerlessness.

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From age 9 to 13, I lived one block from Orwasher's. My father still lives there. Whenever I am in New York on a Saturday morning, it is a rock-ribbed tradition to skip down the street, purchase my loaf, and share it with my father and my children alike -- satisfying what is clearly a genetic predisposition to massive sodium intake.

But no more. Orwasher's has been sold. And the giant saltstick is part of history. And one of the last vestiges of the great Hungarian enclave of Yorkville, "the Hungarian heart of New York," is now just another bakery.

And so it goes.

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Though the wholesale exodus from Yorkville was only a link in the migration of New York's foreign groups, it had, nevertheless, one unique feature. For the first time in the history of immigration this movement was prompted by an irrevocable desire to stay here for good; to regard America as their own -- an adopted homeland in which to live and die.

I am not sure whether to be amused or embarrassed that it required the extinction of the giant saltstick to impel me to do some research and discover, for the first time, that the neighborhood in which I finished elementary school (P.S. 190) and started junior high school (Robert Wagner) is technically known as Yorkville and was once home to thriving communities of upwardly mobile Germans, Czechoslovakians and Hungarians.

From 1880 until World War I a mighty wave of immigrants poured into New York and the rest of the United States. At first, the central and eastern Europeans congregated on the lower East side, but they gradually moved north, into apartments that, as John Kosa recorded in "Hungarian Immigrants in North America: Their Residential Mobility and Ecology," boasted the luxury of a "bathroom and kitchen and a window in each room." Each ethnic group carved out its own distinct neighborhood -- the Hungarians clustered between First and Second Avenues north of 75th street. By 1930, six out of 10 families in Yorkville were of foreign origin.

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A natural location, then, for Abraham Orwasher, an immigrant Hungarian baker, to set up shop in 1916, on the site of a previous bakery whose provenance appears unknown. And then came forth the rye and the cinnamon raisin and the raisin pumpernickel and the saltstick. And it was all good.

From 1916 to 2007 is a pretty darn good run. That's a whole lot of raisin pumpernickel. I can't begrudge Abram Orwasher, Abraham's grandson, for deciding to move on. Nothing lasts forever, and now I have a new life quest -- to discover the recipe for the giant saltstick and see if I can make one for myself, in honor of the cantankerous Hungarians, whom, one immigrant is reported by Kosa to have said, "even God finds it hard to give orders to..."

The progression, from Hungary to Lower East Side to the Upper, from Yorkville to Long Island, from immigrant baker to who knows what, is as American as apple pie or a chocolate chip bagel. The ground is always shaking under our feet, and that's the way we like it.

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It is one of the most conspicuous characteristics of immigrant life in America that the various racial groups are constantly shifting from one place to another and, driven by rising rent or a desire for more comfortable quarters, travel en masse, driving before them other racial groups...

On a miniature scale the migration of the nations is being restaged. Phenomena that marked the great historical movement of nomad races in the dawn of the Middle Ages are being repeated here. Like the Asiatic races in the eight and ninth centuries, which set off from their old haunts in quest of more fertile pastures and richer hunting grounds -- driven, as well by new onrushing hordes of barbarians -- immigrant groups in this city are likewise moving.

I've come to terms with my missing saltstick, but there is one twist of the bread knife that I simply can't resist.

As far back as 1968, Jean Hewitt was describing Orwasher's in the New York Times as "one of the few bakeries left in Manhattan turning out hand-molded, hard-crusted European-style pumpernickel and sour-rye bread from old-fashioned brick-hearth ovens." Then, in 1998, R.W. Apple took a turn at the rhapsody, describing Abram Orwasher "as a true believer":

"For me," he said the other day in his little office, "bread is rye bread, although I admit that these days it's not the fashionable thing in New York. It's focaccia, ciabatta, sourdough, country French, artisan bread, whatever artisan bread is. We sell to all the big guys -- Zabar's, Dean & Deluca, Balducci's -- but they don't buy a lot of rye bread these days.

"They're missing out on the best."

Orwasher's Bakery still makes rye, in several styles, makes it the old-fashioned way, by hand, using a rye sour starter that has never been remade in 80 years, and bakes it in brick-hearth ovens in the shop's basement.

But then, on Nov. 21, this little note in the Times' "Off the Menu":

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ORWASHER'S BAKERY: Abram Orwasher, the third generation of the family that founded this Upper East Side bakery in 1916, has sold it to Keith Cohen, who worked at Tribeca Oven. Mr. Cohen plans to expand the products beyond the Eastern European breads the bakery is known for, with artisanal breads from Italy, France, Ireland and the United States

Oh those barbarians, with their artisanal breads and bans against giant saltsticks. Is that a sweet-sad Hungarian melody that I hear?


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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