My earliest memories of the iconic New York City bakery smell are of Lichtman’s, a Jewish-Hungarian bakery on Amsterdam and West Eighty-sixth Street that closed in the 1980s. When my family visited my grandparents, who lived half a block away, we would often stop in for cookies (after picking up roast-beef sandwiches at nearby Barney Greengrass, which has its own iconic New York smell of sawdust, fish, salt, and pickle brine). I remember discovering that Lichtman’s crescent-shaped butter cookies fit perfectly into the cutout in the backs of my grandparents’ wooden kitchen chairs.
I was delighted to discover a modern incarnation of this scent right before rush hour, in Grand Central Terminal, just past the doors to the Times Square shuttle-train platform. The aroma emanated from New York’s bakery mini-chain Hot & Crusty, which has a small outpost there, a few steps from Zaro’s blockbuster corner store. As it turns out, a batch of the bakery's bread comes out of the oven around this time each day.
Grand Central has its own signature smell, of course, most intense as you approach the tracks: warm, stale, fan-blown air; mechanics’ oil; and hot metal mixed with a musk of floor cleaner and dank mop-swishings. But the Hot & Crusty smell quickly subsumes these waftings of the station’s underbelly with hot poppy and sesame seeds, caramelized sugar, onion, pepper, warm crust, and yeast. Inside the glass case, black-and-white and chocolate-drop cookies gently melt onto sheets of wax paper alongside rows of cake slices in plastic sleeves, gleaming orbs of egg-glazed challah, curls of rugelach, plump hamantashen, sugar-dusted cinnamon pretzels, linzer tarts as brazen as valentines, and golden palmiers with spiraling lobes, not to mention the shelves of loaves—rye, semolina, poppy. Perhaps it’s Hot & Crusty’s (and Lichtman’s) distinctly New York selection of baked goods (with Jewish leanings) that accounts for the “iconic” aroma.
On a recent Friday at dusk, I noticed passersby turning their heads as they caught the scent of the bakery. Some drifted toward it, lingering on the outskirts, then stepped into its fluorescent halo and emerged with a wax-paper bag. One businessman bit furtively into an enormous chocolate-chip muffin, glanced around, shoved it back into the bag, and dashed away with the bag mittened over his fist, leaving a trail of brown crumbs. I remembered how torn I had felt as a child between eating the cookies straight out of the bag on the sidewalk and bringing them home to delight in their perfect fit.