Lost Foods of New York City: Date-nut bread sandwiches at Chock Full o' Nuts

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Chock Full o'Nuts' date-nut bread. (Leah Koenig)
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Leah Koenig

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Lost Foods of New York City is a column that celebrates the food and drink that once fed the city, but have disappeared.

New York City knows a thing or two about good coffee.

Today’s cafés brew boutique beans, utilize precise, time-consuming brewing methods (Japanese-style pour-over anyone?), and offer forth the product of their craft with hushed reverence. For all the snobbery, theirs are often some breathtaking cups. But long before today’s artisanal coffee revolution, and even before Starbucks’ plucky mermaid shone like a lighthouse on every Manhattan street corner, there was Chock Full o’ Nuts.

For several decades in the mid-20th century, the nut-stand-turned-coffee-empire founded in 1926 by Brooklynite William Black represented the height of quality coffee. A leap above the overheated mud of its era, Chock Full o' Nuts was ahead of its time with sourcing quality beans and supervising the blending and roasting processes. The company cultivated this superior image with a long-running slogan that proclaimed Chock Full o' Nuts to be “that heavenly coffee.”

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Throughout the 1940s and '50s and on into the '60s, Chock Full o' Nuts’ several dozen coffee shops refilled the mugs of thousands of New York area customers each day, and their Checker Cab-yellow coffee cans graced kitchen cupboards throughout the city. (The shop on Broadway pictured at left carried on into the 1970s; via John Osterholm.) Like any respectable coffee shop, they also served food along with their drink: a modest menu of dishes like lemon cream pie, whole-wheat donuts, and green pea soup. One of their offerings, however, would become a signature—a dish so deliciously simple and practical that it would nearly eclipse the coffee in nostalgic (if not retail) value: date-nut bread and cream cheese sandwiches.

The sandwich, made of two dense slices of date-nut bread slathered with cream cheese, was once a daily fixture of New York City life, particularly for those on a budget. In their respective memoirs, By Myself and Then Some, and Memoirs of a Beatnik, model-turned actress Lauren Bacall and poet Diane di Prima recount how they relied on Chock Full o' Nuts’ date-nut sandwiches as a primary source of young-artist sustenance. Bacall remembers the sandwiches (10 cents when she ate them in the 1940s) and a cup of coffee (5 cents) being “not substantial, but filling—[they] got me through the day.”

Meanwhile, Donna Gelb of the Culinary Historians of New York, who ate at Chock Full o' Nuts as a child in the early 1960s, recalled that the date-nut bread was “so dark and rich it looked like brownie bread.”

For all of the memories about the date-nut sandwich, however, there’s something peculiar about it: it was not Chock Full o' Nuts’ original cream cheese sandwich. That honor goes to the “nutted cheese,” a similar dish that slathered whole-wheat raisin bread with cream cheese that had been mixed with chopped walnuts. That’s the sandwich that Brooklyn-based food historian and author Arthur Schwartz recalls eating as a young Esquire magazine intern in 1967. “I remember liking the name ‘nutted cheese,’” he said.

Date nut bread, raisin bread—what gives? The exact history is murky, but somewhere along the way, perhaps due to the popularity of the raisin version, Black added the second sandwich to the menu. And now, half a century later, the date-nut and cream cheese sandwich is the one people pine for.

“I barely remember [eating] the date-nut bread version, but, as with everyone else, that is my first association,” said Cara De Silva, a New York-based author and food historian.

One explanation for this phenomenon is that the date-nut sandwich simply trumped its raisin predecessor in deliciousness. A more likely scenario is that people have simply conflated the two sandwiches: it’s easy enough, after all, to confuse plump raisins and chopped dates when baked into bread. And, as De Silva suggested, the mid-century popularity of canned date-nut bread brands like Dromedary and Crosse & Blackwell have likely also helped muddle people’s memories.

Whatever the case, when Chock Full o' Nuts announced it would relaunch its cafe business in 2010 (after Black passed away in 1983, the company continued to sell its coffee in stores, but the last of his shops shuttered by the late ‘80s) the revived menu included both the “Original Nutted Cheese” (on raisin bread) and the “Chock Classic” (on date-nut bread). The company was no longer independently owned—Sara Lee bought it in 1999, followed by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA in 2005. But for the first time in decades, New Yorkers could get both of their fixes—coffee and a date-nut and cream cheese sandwich—in one restaurant.

The New York Times marked the company’s return with an article announcing the opening of the first new location on 23rd street and 5th avenue, as well as company plans to develop 50 shops more over the following 15 years. Chock Full o' Nuts, meanwhile, ramped up media attention for their return by sponsoring date-nut bread sandwich-eating contests in Madison Square Garden.

Some of these new coffee shops continue to thrive, but others opened and then quickly closed. Walking by the 23rd street shop last month, for example, I found a shuttered storefront and an ominous note from the City Marshall tacked on the front door claiming that the landlord had official possession of the building. It seems that, compared to today’s multitude of artisanal alternatives, even “heavenly” coffee tastes a bit mundane. Still, the memory of the date-nut bread and cream cheese sandwich lives on, and is easy to recreate at home. Whether you eat it alongside a cup of Chock Full o' Nuts or Counter Culture coffee, and serve it brewed or French pressed, the sandwich will remain a classic.

DATE-NUT BREAD AND CREAM CHEESE SANDWICHES

For the bread (makes 1 loaf):

1 cup pitted chopped dried dates
3/4 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
8-oz package cream cheese, slightly softened

1. Preheat oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9x5-inch metal loaf pan, set aside.
2. Add the dates to medium-sized, heat-safe bowl. Pour boiling water over top, stir and let stand 15 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium bowl. Add the nuts and set aside.
4. In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until combined (mixture might look crumbly). Add eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth and combined.
5. Alternate between adding the flour mixture and the date mixture (including remaining water), 1/2 of each at a time, mixing until combined.
6. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 45-55 minutes, until bread is almost completely baked, but a few crumbs still stick to a toothpick inserted into the loaf. The bread will continue cooking after it is removed from the oven, so be careful not to overbake.

Assemble the sandwiches:

7. Let bread cool for 10-15 minutes, then remove from pan and let cool fully on a rack. Once cooled, slice bread and serve as closed or open-faced sandwiches spread with a tablespoon or two of cream cheese.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this recipe called for baking soda when it should have called for baking powder. Thanks, commenters and bakers, for finding the error! The recipe above should work much better.