One of the defining traditions of life in New York City is the corner bodega. It’s an iconic representation of the melting-pot mentality that helps to set off New York from the cookie-cutter chain stores of suburbia. I use the word bodega loosely because although it began as a Hispanic institution, its Moms and Pops now include proprietors of many cultures. To qualify as a real bodega it must be on your corner – not in the middle of the block; it must carry milk, juice, slightly stale Kaiser rolls and any other necessity you may have forgotten when you were shopping at a real store – and the first language of the person
behind the counter must not be English. That’s a bodega.
Imagine my shock when I was strolling up Columbus Avenue last week only to discover a shiny new 7-11 on the corner at 89th street. A 7-11! The Anti-Bodega! I could feel the property value of my co-op shrinking as I stood there, gaping at this anomaly. What’s next? Denny’s?
My corner bodega is called Zabar’s and many people would protest that it, too, does not qualify as a real bodega. But they’re just being picky: it’s on the corner (sort of); it carries milk – from cows, from sheep, from goats, from soy, from almonds; 1% milk, 2% milk, whole milk, half-and-half, whipping cream, heavy cream, sour cream, cream cheese, crème fraiche – and others, I’m sure. And although the original Zabar’s Mom and Pop were Jewish and came from Eastern Europe rather than from Central or South America, Korea, Thailand or China, they were immigrants finding their way into American society by opening a little food store on the corner – a bodega – or schmodega, if you prefer.
The great thing about Zabar’s – the thing that made me choose my apartment within walking distance of this extraordinary outlet – is that they offer the best and freshest of everything. They’re not a real market like Fairway or Whole Foods, but a dedicated foodie will always be able find what he or she needs. For example, Zabar’s doesn’t have ten different brands of San Marzano tomatoes like Fairway does, but the canned tomatoes they have are top-notch, Italian and D.O.P. There aren’t aisles dedicated to hundreds of different almond butters like Whole Foods has; Zabar’s has one almond butter. It’s called Yum and it is. And when I can’t find Treviso radicchio at Fairway, chances are Zabar’s is stocking it. It’s uncanny what you can find there in a pinch - and “in a pinch” is exactly what a good bodega is all about.