In Praise of the Kaiser Roll

It isn’t fair that bread goes stale. So much work goes into it. All those teeny yeasties live and die for it.

And then there’s the fact that baker has to wake up long before the sunrise so that the rolls, and whatever else comes out of that fragrant oven, is ready for sale when you and I decide to buy it. Never having been a morning person–even when I forced myself with buckets of coffee–I must honor the baker as another one of those laborers who must sacrifice what we consider to be a normal life to bring us bread and earn a living.

I learned the difference between a kaiser roll and any other kind of bread when my father took me to a South Philadelphia institution: Nick’s Roast Beef. Up until that time, I thought roast beef was a leathery gray slice of gristle that was served with mashed potatoes, brown gravy and some despair from my mother about how long it should have stayed in the oven. After a while my mother gave up on her quest for the perfect roast, substituting an aluminum foil covered tray called a TV Dinner.

The exception to this was cold roast beef that we bought sliced paper-thin from a local delicatessen, wrapped in paper. No matter what you did to it, it tasted carnivorously divine, especially that red center. Slather it with brown mustard, put it between two slices of rye bread, serve with a pickle (because it tastes so good you have to assuage the guilt by eating a green vegetable) and you’re in heaven.

A Nick’s Roast Beef sandwich was a Philadelphia version of what is also called a “French dip.” You find it in taverns because it goes so well with beer. Like a cheese steak, you could have it with peppers (sweet or hot), onions, a slice of cheese, a squirt of mustard, a glunk of ketchup, or, if you really wanted to show the world how tough you were, a spoonful of ground, pale golden horseradish.

You bring up Nicks Roast Beef nowadays and you can start an argument (you bring up just about anything in Philadelphia and you can start an argument, but, if it’s about food in the City of Brotherly Love, the fight ends when you put the food in your mouth) about Old Original Nick’s versus regular Nick’s. I haven’t probed the history much but I can tell you that I’ve been to both and, each time, the sandwich knocked me out.

Nick’s kept the roast warm, sliced it warm and served it on a thick, soft, crusty round roll with what looked like a pinwheel pattern in the top, with juice (not gravy–gravy has stuff in it, joose is what comes from the meat!) all over the meat until it filled the crevices of the roll and turned it into a soggy sponge.

A sponge that miraculously held together, so that when I hoisted the sandwich into my mouth, the salty, rich, juicy beefiness caused my entire universe to shrink to what has happening on my tongue, and not get that much bigger, until I ate the entire thing.

It was simply a great sandwich in a city famous for them. I liked them so much that when I had to go into a hospital for an operation on my wrist, my father visited with a foil wrapped Nick’s and, for a moment I was like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz: I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Later, when I began to do journalism, I’d do the occasional fun food story that would bring me close to the purveyors of the mind-blasting meals that make-up for all that whole-wheat, low-fat, low-carb, low-taste stuff you eat because you believe what’s written in the newspapers you write for.

Sometimes I’d meet the entrepreneurs who started the business. I never met the inventors of the original Nick’s Roast Beef sandwich, but I did ask several cheese steak, hoagie, oven-grinder and sub chefs what essential ingredient made their sandwiches taste so good, and they all said two words:

“The bread.”

Anybody can get good ingredients. Anybody can cook them right. The bread is more than the frame around the picture. It’s what absorbs the melting cheese, the oil & vinegar, “tha joose from tha meat” so it all goes into your mouth to create a clanging cacophony of flavor that is so incredibly satisfying.

In Philadelphia the Amoroso Bakery makes most of it. On a summer night you can open your window and smell the ovens at their South Philadelphia factory. I don’t know if Old Original or regular Nick’s get their kaisers from Amoroso. All I can say is, if you need an introduction to a kaiser roll, mine could not be beaten.

Down where I live, you can’t get Amoroso in a supermarket, and I wasn’t thinking of bringing home any bread (having read all that stuff about guys with action-hero bodies eschewing carbs for a handful of almonds), when I saw, in a corner, on a rack, the day-old bread.

Having baked bread, I know that the major benefit of the process (aside from the aroma when it’s in the oven) is that you can’t rush it. Whether you’re up before dawn or lazing in bed as the sun comes through the window, baking bread is an activity you build your day around that rewards you with a whole mountain of carbs that tastes so good you forget about every bad thing that was said about carbs, and pile on the butter.

I made kaiser rolls once and didn’t bother to cut the pinwheel pattern on the top, or sprinkle on any of the bagel toppings that make them interesting. I found that they were a little too big for the average hamburger patty and, because I wasn’t roasting much beef (why do so many of the publications I write for want me to eat chicken all the time?) or barbecue, they seemed to be more bread than I wanted.

But then I saw a bag of day old kaisers in my supermarket, and something about their toasty brown tops (with the pinwheel pattern cut in!) took me back to my childhood and Nick’s Roast Beef, Old Original or whatever.

They were slightly dry but soft enough and, what do you think happened when I made one of my bigger than normal ground turkey burgers? Or a pepper-and-egg (another great Philadelphia sandwich)? Or a thin sliced steak, seared with a little olive oil, and smothered in mushrooms?

And all that joose went into the roll, and, day old or not, I had that moment again when I remembered why so many people like stuff that nobody has to celebrate, nobody has to die from eating too much of, nobody has to give awards for, nobody has to write about or do anything else but just enjoy.

Ir tastes so good.


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