What I meant to say was, “Lettuce?! Who puts lettuce on a bagel?” But what I said instead was, “Sure.” That’s when I learned about a nefarious subterfuge being perpetrated on bagel lovers at deli counters across New York City.
I live on bagels. Compared to cumbersome, jaw-breaking rolls or heroes, bagels are a tidy, trusty, mouth-fitting snack. Add lettuce to the bun, any bun, and the sandwich becomes juicier, fresher. Add it to a bagel, and a decent snack is ruined. It’s a tasteless thing to do.
After a lot of trial and error in the year since I moved to New York, I settled on my favorite combination: everything bagel with scallion cream cheese, tomato and ham. Longer-term New Yorkers, of course, will say, “Ham?! Who puts ham on a bagel?” But it works for me.
At my go-to counter, the S.K. Deli Market in the East Village, I gave the same order every visit for at least four months. The deli person would prepare and wrap the bagel, take hold of the Sharpie taped to the microwave, and scribble the price onto the aluminum foil. From bagel to bagel, it averaged out to about $3.75. It wasn’t long before the deli person knew my order and nodded as I recited it. I felt like I could just say, “the usual.” Then one day, he broke the ritual: he asked if I’d like to add lettuce.
Caught off guard, I found myself saying yes. He wrapped the bagel and scribbled on the foil. I didn’t bother to look and just went to the register to pay.
“That’ll be $7.25,” said the cashier.
“Wait,” I said. “Something’s not right.” She went to deli person and confirmed the price. She called what I had ordered a sandwich. I said I had been ordering a bagel quite regularly for a year now at a price that fluctuated around $3.75. She checked again. She was adamant that my sandwich cost $7.25.
I had to investigate further. I tried about four delis across the city and at each of them, I was asked if I wanted lettuce. I wouldn’t be fooled again. So, I ordered my bagel with a pre-emptive request: “No lettuce, please.” It seemed to keep the cost at the expected amount. Since when is lettuce a thing?
Giving it some thought, I felt like I figured out what had happened. It’s simple math, really. If I order a ham sandwich, what I get is a roll, or two slices of bread, filled with ham, tomato and lettuce. Cheese and mayo are options, but they aren’t the core. For a bagel, cream cheese or butter is core. Even my questionable choice of ham can be core. It struck me that adding that insipid layer of chopped lettuce had somehow transformed my bagel with cream cheese and ham into a sandwich at more than twice the price.
I marched back to the counter at the S.K. Deli Market to test my hypothesis. I felt a little sad that the deli man seemed to have forgotten me during my weeks of bagel philandering. “Ham, tomato, scallion cream cheese on an everything bagel. No lettuce, please,” I said. Deli man prepared the bagel, took the Sharpie down, and scribbled on the foil. At the register, the price was $3.75.
I came back the very next day and ordered again. “Lettuce?” he asked. “Yes, please!” I replied. And on the foil, he scribbled, $7.25. This time I demanded an explanation. “And why is it that my bagel – and I have been ordering the same thing for ages, I can assure you – is $4 dollars more expensive when I get it with lettuce?”
It turns out it wasn’t about the lettuce. It wasn’t about the choice of scallion cream cheese over plain, which I had also started to suspect. It was about the damn ham, but not the way you might expect. As the deli person explained, “It’s because you buy it in the evening, man.” I stood there and looked at him as if I had woken up in his bed with a hangover. True, my orders had been early and late. I hadn’t factored in the time of day. Turns out, a bagel bought in the evening will be prepared with several more slices of ham, whereas a morning bagel has only three, and that’s what ups the price.
That’s how I learned the secret incantation: “… and only three slices of ham. No lettuce.”