capers and caper berries.

Ah, the caper. That polarizing garnish that oh-so-often languishes uneaten on plates of smoked salmon or trays of creamy deviled eggs. The tiny green buds tend to inspire extremes–it’s either love it or hate it–and understandably so. Capers themselves are extreme: the briny buds, which call to mind olives and anchovies, pack a powerful punch. I’d wager they have one of the highest flavor-to-size ratios of anything around.

For most New Yorkers, the caper is a garnish on the bagel-cream cheese-lox sandwich. “There’s a whole business to getting a bagel in New York” cookbook author Cathy Barrow tells me one sunny morning in June. “You have to decide whether to toast it. There’s the question of top half and the bottom half, there’s the shmear, the squeeze of lemon, the sliced red onions, some black pepper, maybe a tomato slice, and capers.” She pauses, then adds, emphatically: “without capers, it’s not the real thing.”

capers2

Noah Bernamoff, founder and owner of Mile End Delicatessen in New York, disagrees. “I had no idea what a caper was until I met my New York-born wife” he admits. “My bagel and lox experience growing up in Montreal did not include capers. In fact, at my favorite bagel spot in Montreal, Beauty’s, the bagel sandwich is exactly as you describe it, except it doesn’t have capers.” How the caper came to be paired with lox and cream cheese in New York is a mystery–Bernamoff is pretty sure it’s not an Old Country original–and while he now serves capers on his Black Seed bagel sandwiches at his deli, he doesn’t think they belong on everything.

What is a caper, exactly, other than the garnish on your Sunday lox (or a harebrained adventure à la Muppets)? Read my article on capers and caper berries over on Serious Eats.

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