In Los Angeles, a city full of ex-New Yorkers, there is panic about the bagel. People complain, they freeze New York bagels, they mail-order them. Larry King has gone into business altering the mineral content of water simply to mimic the New York bagel, that’s how supposedly abysmal the bagel situation is. But here is a secret: There are plenty of perfectly good bagels in Los Angeles. The real heresy of breakfast breads is about the egg and cheese on a roll, the omnipresent New York breakfast sandwich that, in LA, is an unknown species.
Order a breakfast sandwich at any New York deli and you will be asked very few questions. You will simply receive a crusty white roll that is filled with airy, bready steam and stuck together with the ooze of American cheese, hot egg, and a meat. At the typical LA donut shop, a breakfast sandwich comes on a choice of a bagel or croissant. Someplace brunchy and fancy will give you a brioche. Diner menus seem most perplexed by the simple sandwich: toasted wheat or white is the default option. Not only does this option lack crust, but with hot egg the combination becomes so soggy that it undermines the structural integrity of the sandwich. Somehow, the kaiser roll, also known as the hard roll, never made it to LA, and no one is talking about it.
Like the bagel and the croissant, the kaiser roll has roots in Austrian Jewish history. The former two were both named for Jan Sobieski following the siege of Vienna (the croissant after the Turks he defeated and the bagel, more tenuously, after the stirrups of his victorious cavalry), the kaiser roll was baked and named about a hundred years later to honor Franz Joseph I. Both rulers were heroes of the Eastern European Jewish population for bestowing equal rights on the Jews. One of these rights was the permission to bake bread—the boiled bagel was the original work-around.
In their original European iterations, each bread was simply eaten as is, requiring an eventual infusion of American decadence to be made into sandwiches. New York brought about a fillings-driven schism in these breads—the bagel pairing up with smoked fish and cream cheese, the kaiser putting down roots alongside the pork products of the German delicatessen. Today, you rarely find a place that bakes kaiser on premise as you do with bagels; instead you find them piled in plastic bins and ready for the griddle wherever Boar’s Head products are sold.
The kaiser’s immigration and assimilation story is a little more clear cut than that of the bagel. There are no substantiated claims on New York’s first bagel. They were first baked in the basement bakeries of the Lower East Side, later tightly controlled by the Bagel Bakers Local 338 for much of the half-century of its gradual cultural ascendance. The arrival of the kaiser roll in America is well-documented. Its first big wave of popularity was during the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair, when future yeast mogul Charles Fleischmann and his brother Louis sold the roll along with other baked goods at their Vienna Model Bakery. Despite being an old-world food, the American kaiser represented the best new dry yeast technologies. When Fleischmann set up permanent shop, he located his headquarters on Long Island, supplying yeast, recipes, and methodology to bakers across the Northeast.
Even when, at some point in the history of New York, the cold-cuts counter was passed on by the German population to the grocers of the hispanic bodega, the kaiser lived on. Perhaps this is because of the textural similarity of the kaiser roll to Cuban bread and the rolls of the Spanish bocadillo, or the fact that it holds up well on a sandwich press. Perhaps the breakfast sandwich on a roll is one of New York’s under-the-radar fusion foods: the German-Latin breakfast.
Today, kaiser rolls are baked in the northeast at big bakeries of every background: Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican, Yemeni. The website of wholesaler Grimaldi’s (no relation to the pizza joint) clearly conveys that the kaiser roll need not take a backseat to the bagel and other breakfast breads:
So even though David Sax, the “M.F.K. Fisher of smoked meats,” names LA the premier deli city in North America, I would modify that to say that what he is speaking about are pastrami-centric, Jewish delis. But the New York mongrel of the deli world, the breakfast sandwich that belongs neither to the Jewish bagel shop nor the Italian deli nor the German butcher, never made it westward. Maybe this is a void that was never filled because Angelenos do not walk with their breakfasts, or because delis and corner stores never married here, or maybe it is because the supremacy of the breakfast burrito rendered them irrelevant.
If it’s true that the perfect breakfast sandwich didn’t make the move to LA due to its lack of clear cultural identity (and the probable pork content), then here is one final irony: When you next walk into a bodega to order your morning bacon, egg, and cheese or ham, egg, and cheese on a roll, you are as likely as not to be ordering a halal sandwich. The Yemeni markets seamlessly integrated into the city’s bodega landscape rarely even mention the non-treyf nature of their meat. When a bacon substitute can go undetected, you have clear proof that the New York kaiser roll is a sandwich star that could make it in Hollywood. It’s time to stop pretending that even the perfect bagel can make a decent egg and cheese on a roll.