Gut Instinct: Challah at Me

393058712_ebd09d6978Oh, yeah, I'm rolling deep with bread.

It was a dark and drunken night, long past the hour of common sense, so naturally I was swerving my bike home from Williamsburg. My then-roommate Andrew and I had drunk two too many Styrofoam tankards of beer from Turkey’s Nest, where the faded décor and prices are time-warped in 1982: $4 buys 32 ounces of foamy fun, tip included.

“It’s like they’re begging you to get drunk,” said Andrew, who takes hairstyling cues from Hassids’ curly forelocks. Naturally, he felt right at home as we rolled through yarmulke-wearing South Williamsburg and into Clinton Hill. We steered toward empty beds, another night of alcohol-deadened sleep.These were the late, lonely days of 2004, before he fell in love with a dreadlocked seamstress, following her to San Francisco and heartbreak. I was in the ragged end of a long relationship, in which fuck you was a term of endearment. Such giant beers provided our day’s sole joy.

“Something smells amazing,” Andrew said, stopping on Fulton Street and inhaling the cool air. I followed suit, discerning the sweet perfume of freshly baked bread— an aroma as intoxicating as what I’d recently swallowed. Maybe it was Andrew’s hair. Maybe the scent was my Madeleine. “It almost smells like…challah,” I said, recalling my childhood Rosh Hashanah. My heart gladdened envisioning my mom braiding eggy dough into tight strands.

We weaved—out of curiosity and inebriation—past sooty, shuttered warehouses.

Nothing. Nothing. Jackpot. On Waverly Place, a block off Fulton, we discovered a squat building glowing like Vegas on the desert horizon: the Israel Beigel Baking Company (551 Waverly Ave., betw. Atlantic & Fulton Aves., B’klyn, 718-789-0783). Through a gate I watched as men bustled through the bakery, bagging challah loaves rectangular and circular, sesame-seeded and as smooth and shiny as a Ken doll.

We grasped the prison-like bars and ogled the beautiful loaves as if they were strippers working a pole—food porn at its finest. My carbohydrate lust deepened. My pulse quickened. I needed that challah— and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Excuse me,” I called to a worker, as deeply tanned as the loaf he held. He sauntered to the fence, stopping several feet away as if we were rabid junkyard dogs. “Whaddya want?” “Bread,” I said, emboldened by beer. He called his boss, who wore a flour-dusted button-down as white as his beard.

“How many loaves?” he asked as tersely as an interrogator.Three.Without providing a price, he ambled off, returning bearing an unmarked brown bag. “Five dollars.” I slid him the fee clandestinely, like we were completing the world’s tastiest drug deal. He got his bread. I got mine. “Remember,” he said, his tone turning bright and paternal, “our challah makes excellent French toast.”

We rode home giddily; for once, our happiness was not served in a Styrofoam cup. Come morning, I coated my cast-iron pan with butter and thick challah slices with a mixture of eggs, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. The crisped final product was fluffy and sweet, with a nice, eggy undercurrent. Like a good Jew, I loved Israel. And Israel loved me back.

Over a half-decade, I’ve oft repeated this covert transaction. Each pass-off is fingerprint-unique. Sometimes the bread’s $2 a loaf; other times it’s three for $5. Or four for $10.The pricing is as capricious as the challah is delicious. But if you deign to buy a loaf, there are ironclad rules of engagement:

1. Come after 11 p.m.

2. Observe the Sabbath.

3. Bring correct change.

4. If you don’t have correct change, await serendipity.

One night, I attempted to buy several loaves.The price: $4. I had a $10.

“Do you have change?” the challah man asked, examining my wrinkled bill as if it were a tetanus-riddled rusty nail. I dug in my pockets, finding only fuzz. We stared at one another through the barred grate, a Mexican standoff between two Jews. He shrugged and began walking away when a voice croaked from the darkness, “I have change.” A homeless man wearing ill-fitting brown rags hobbled forward, his black hair as wiry as a Brillo pad.

From the recesses of his raggedy clothes he retrieved a wad of twisted one-dollar bills. “One, two, three…” he counted, exchanging change for a crisp Alexander Hamilton. He folded it and secreted the currency in a dark, unlikely crevice. “Enjoy the bread,” he said, shuffling off and, if but for a night, restoring my faith in New York’s magic.