Chock Full o'Nuts Nutted Cheese Sandwich
The Jewish history behind an iconic New York City sandwich
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Sometimes I stumble across stories that I published earlier on in my career and I just…cringe. Everyone goes up learning curves, but as a writer in the internet age, my growth (and the many bumps and mistakes along the way) are available in Google-searchable perpetuity.
And yet, for all the occasional moments of embarrassment, I am also really proud of my archive - particularly a column I used to write for Capital New York, a short-lived online publication that was acquired and then essentially shut down by Politico. The column, which was called Lost Foods of New York City explored the dishes and drinks that once fed New York City, but have disappeared overtime.
I loved that column. It was a joy to research and write, and a way to access a little bit of the glamour and nostalgia of different eras of my favorite city. I always thought it was a shame that more folks didn’t get to read about the history of Steak Diane, Brooklyn Blackout Cake, or the Butter Cakes from Childs. But fortunately, Politico kept the stories in their archive which means I can share them with you!
The story below, which is my favorite of the series, explores the beloved, 20th-century coffee shop, Chock Full o’Nuts and two of its iconic sandwiches: a date nut bread and cream cheese sandwich, and the “nutted cheese,” which spread a mix of cream cheese and chopped walnuts between cinnamon raisin bread. Okay, so I have some quibbles with the name “nutted cheese,” which isn’t particularly appetizing, even if it accurately describes the sandwich spread. But it must’ve appealed to hungry New Yorkers, because it became a local classic.
Not surprisingly - this is New York City, after all - Chock Full o’Nuts has a Jewish historical connection. The founder, William Black (originally Schwarz, which means black in Yiddish) was a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant who opened a roasted nut stand near Times Square in 1926, which he named Chock Full o’Nuts. The stand was a hit, and Black eventually expanded his business to nearly two dozen locations.
During the Great Depression, Black switched from roasting nuts to roasting coffee beans, and converted his shops into short-order luncheonettes that served reasonably priced food and house roasted coffee. (Talk about being ahead of the times!) He also sold brand name, Chock Full o’Nuts coffee in signature yellow tins to New Yorkers and around the country.
Capital New York was not a Jewishly-focused publication, so there was no real reason to mention Black’s heritage in my original article. But I always love a good Jewish immigrant food business story, and am glad to share it with you!
Now, without further ado, enjoy this blast from the past…
Lost Foods of New York City: Date-nut Bread Sandwiches at Chock Full o’ Nuts
By: Leah Koenig
This story was originally published in 2012.
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.”
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. 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.
Chock Full o’Nuts’ Nutted Cheese Sandwich
This recipe is my completely inaccurate homage to Chock Full o’Nuts’ original, which I unfortunately never had a chance to try. But it is delicious! It can be made in just a few minutes, using store-bought raisin bread. And if you feel like going DIY, I’ve also included a recipe for homemade raisin bread that is a joy all on its own.