The Expedient Picnic

by Caroline

Eating with kids is often all about expediency, and so although it was difficult, in Oxford, to set aside my romantic, Evelyn Waugh-inspired visions of country picnics, I have been at this long enough to know that when the kids are hungry, they need to eat. Now.

So we make or purchase nice sandwiches, collect cold drinks, perhaps add a bag of crisps and some carrots or an apple. Sometimes, I pack the picnic while they are eating breakfast, and they start asking for it shortly after we leave the house. (I have learned to pack enough food for six.) Or we collect the provisions on the road, in which case the kids see no reason not to sit right down and eat it. They plop down in a grubby doorway, hardly waiting for me to kick the cigarette butts out of the way; they enjoy a pretty view, but they don’t need it. So while I keep expecting to picnic in a place like this:


Inevitably, we wind up in a place like this:


And I’ll keep reminding myself that while a nice setting might improve the meal, it’s the food and the company who make the meal.

Sonny’s Bagels

by Lisa


Sonny’s Bagels in South Orange, NJ is more an industrial kitchen than a store. The commercial area is a simple slip of counter that supports an old cash register and nine or so metal mesh bins, stacked two high, into which warm bagels tumble all day long: Plain, Sesame, Poppy, Garlic, Onion, Salt, Cinnamon Raisin, Everything, and a dark, dense Pumpernickel.


The menu is a simple piece of paper listing quantities of bagels and their cost. Beyond the counter are rows of stainless steel ovens and great vats of water into which the risen dough is plunged for boiling. There are stainless steel mixing bowls and flour-covered work tables. If you want a bagel, a friendly but no-nonsense employee waits impatiently for you to decide which, or how many pumpernickel or salt or just plain you will take today. Then, into the bag they go, so quickly it seems impossible she has counted them accurately. When I was a kid, if we arrived at a peak time, there was always a line stretching up South Orange Avenue, and we would wait for as long as it took for a brown paper bag full of a baker’s dozen, or a single bagel, still warm from the oven, wrapped in a square of pastry paper, and we would take our first bite before we had set foot out of the store, because a Watson bagel was that good.


In the 1940’s, Watson’s Bagels, on Watson Avenue in Newark, served the booming Jewish population of the area. Sonny Amster learned to make the Watson bagel from his father, an immigrant bagel-maker, and he gained partnership in Watson’s in the late 1950s. At the time, the bagel making union restricted membership to those who had intimate knowledge of the process, and in this way ensured a de facto union membership comprised of bagel-makers and their sons. Race riots forced the Watson business to move location in 1967, but Sonny’s son expanded the business and opened his eponymous store in 1971, as well as others in neighboring suburbs.


A Watson bagel is hand-rolled from dough made of high-gluten flour, salt, malt, and yeast. It is boiled then baked. Some attributed Sonny’s primacy to his brick ovens, others to the high quality and precise chemistry of the local water. (Decades later, my sister met a bagel maker in California who was rumored to import his water from the east coast.) But for the child I was, the magic resided in the fact that hot, perfect bagels emerged from those giant ovens all day long—they were good and abundant. There was a time, at Watson’s, when hot bagels could be had 24 hours a day, and when I was a kid, Sonny’s bins were stocked with piles of bagels in every flavor my friends and I craved whenever we wanted, 7 days a week. The bins were always full, or being filled, and there was something primordially satisfying about the simple fact of bagels, in plenty.


In fact, Sonny’s still sells little else: a few bars of cream cheese, a few cartons of orange juice, milk, and cream for coffee. The reach-in refrigerator always appears half-empty. At Sonny’s there are no lox, no composed spreads, no butter as at other bagel stores; at Sonny’s there was nothing besides the bagel: crisp and tender on the outside, dense and chewy on the inside. Sonny’s old world beauty is probably not the product of a deliberate aesthetic, but in the end, it creates one.

And for this, Sonny’s is still ritual, for Jews and gentiles and nonbelievers alike. When I was in middle school, if it was a lucky day, a short walk and 25 cents could procure my friends and me a bagel, piping hot and wrapped in that magic square of pastry paper. Then we were independent and worldly, partaking of something both familiar and famous, knowing we had gotten our hands onto something, onto one thing, that didn’t exist anywhere else, and it was exactly ours. What more, really, does an adolescent want? Our fingers warmed, our mouths filled with bread, for moment upon moment—over and over again—our hunger was sated.

This trip, as always, we had bagels as many mornings as we could because there are many excellent food things where we live, bagels are (so very sadly) definitely not one of them.  One morning, Finn and I were lucky enough to watch a fresh batch of bagels being pulled straight out of the oven. They went from peel to bin right in front of our eyes, and I plucked one for him, which he ate exactly as I had, with pure delight.

Sonny’s is always our last, stop, too, on the way to the airport, so that we can load up our bags with a couple of dozen bagels to freeze. There is something crazy magical about arriving 3000 miles later, utterly travel weary, and then unearthing those bagels from the depths of the suitcase.  There’s the bounty to hoard, of course, but also the fact that our clothes smell like bagels, too, and in that moment, Sonny’s reveals itself, and the Avenue, and my teenage friends, and my family on Saturday mornings, and now, my son, with his mouth full, and his quiet, contented smile.


Ode to the British Sandwich

by Caroline

I love sandwiches. Although I will eat a nice salad for lunch, or keep you company with Thai noodles or a rice bowl, just as breakfast is cereal for me, all I ever really want for lunch is a sandwich.  In Paris, the sandwich is all about the baguette–as it should be, of course; the baguettes are wonderful–spread thinly with butter and layered with meat or cheese (not, I think, both).  I watched French school kids tear into their lunches and remembered my  husband’s childhood year of the same daily lunch: baguette with butter and salami. But for me, the sandwich on baguette is, as Eli began to complain, a little big in the mouth.

In England, the bread isn’t the star player, but nor is it an afterthought; whether white or whole grain, dense and malty or tangy with buttermilk, it plays its supporting role well. As for the fillings,  we won’t talk about the betrayal that is the peanut butter and butter sandwich (I’m not sure Ben will ever recover from that), nor the extravagant use of the shudder-inducing salad crème.  No, I glory in egg and cress, ploughman’s, brie-walnut-cranberry jam, cheddar and chutney, carrot and wembley (that’s a cheese), red cheddar and tomato– and those are just the vegetarian options! Every train station, every Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer has their own array of sandwiches, made fresh at least once a day and sometimes more often than that. I could happily eat a different one every day for a month.


Let’s have a little Feast!

by Caroline

England is not generally known for its ice cream, and that’s ok — having contributed clotted cream  (not to mention many fine cheeses) to civilization their dairy reputation is secure. Still, as in Paris, there’s ice cream everywhere here. From trucks that dish up soft serve cones (and, for an extra 70p, how can you resist the addition of a nice chocolatey Flake bar?) to corner store freezers with a fabulous assortment of frozen treats.


Meanwhile, after days of suggesting brightly (usually as a procrastinatory, “I don’t want to go into this museum” kind of tactic), “Let’s have a little feast!” Eli was delighted to find in Oxford an ice cream bar called Feast. He will never think of feasts the same way again.


And Only in Legoland, Windsor

by Caroline

As Lisa made clear with her post last week, the rules are different on vacation. We stay up later, sleep in (or so we hope), and we indulge in sweet treats and extra snacks — and so it is for the kids, too.

Now I’ve always been a milk shake and ice cream girl, but it turns out my son Ben is more of a fruit ice guy. At home we make tiny popsicles with toothpick holders in ice cube trays, sometimes dropping fresh berries inside them. On our recent trip to England, he discovered ice lollies and at Legoland (where I thought I might truly pass out from heat stroke), when Ben asked for a “star slush” for lunch, I asked only, “what flavour?”