Hey! I’m talkin’ to you. I’m from Brooklyn. And being from Brooklyn, I know a thing or two about bagels. And I’m tellin’ you that these days a decent bagel is hard to find.
Oh sure, there is no shortage of bagel establishments, but by and large, with large being the operative word here, the products they create and sell are just facsimiles of the real deal.
So why am I complaining about bagels when so many more important issues are at stake? Because pondering about politics or the COVID virus is overwhelming and sure to induce a migraine, while kvetching about the lack of decent bagels is something I can wrap my taste buds around. Besides, it’s a welcome distraction from the turmoil of the day.
Let me state from the outset that I am passionate about bagels. It’s a relationship that dates back to childhood. Back in the day in Brooklyn, I grew up one short block from an old-fashioned bagel bakery. I use the term “old-fashioned” because that was all they did, just make bagels. Bagel bakers were kings. They had a strong union. Why, a bagel baker from the 40’s or 50’s would be appalled to learn that today bagels and bialys are made in the same oven. Right away the integrity of the art form is compromised!
(Let me pause here and briefly explain the bialy, which, outside of New York City, never enjoyed the same popularity as its cousin. The bialy is not a sub-type of bagel, it’s a thing unto itself. Round, with a depressed middle filled with cooked onions and sometimes poppy seeds, it is simply baked, not boiled first. The outside is matte, not shiny, and it doesn’t have that pull-away crust.)
Besides being weaned on hot out of the oven fresh bagels, there’s a human interest angle to my tale. The owner of the bagel bakery had two sons, who were my contemporaries. The older son, Marvin, had a crush on me, but alas, I was enamored of his younger brother. Marvin pursued me, while Marty ignored me. I don’t remember the resolution of this love triangle, but I have reflected many times during my search for a decent bagel, that I should have stuck with Marvin.
So what is the secret of a good, authentic bagel? I share with you a description written by a bagel maven and published in The New York Times:
A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed. All else in not a bagel.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. My problem with most bagels today is that they are too big, no doubt over four ounces, too pale, not crusty on the outside, and too doughy on the inside. Biting into a contemporary bagel is way too frequently akin to biting into an entire loaf of white bread. And when a bagel has this bulk and consistency, no amount of sesame seeds or other toppings can make it right.
Bagel eating is legendary in my family. Those of you who have sprung for the price of the my first book, “How Old Am I in Dog Years?” and actually read it, might recall the essay therein entitled “Bagel Sunday.” The essay was written as a tribute to my husband and our two Labrador retrievers, Bette and Davis. Each and every Sunday morning the three would drive off in our SUV to bring home fresh bagels for breakfast. I was convinced beyond a doubt that the dogs knew when it was Sunday, and enjoyed the bagels as much as we did. Sadly, the dogs have died, but happily, my husband is still with me. And the Sunday bagel routine continues to this day.
No bagel essay would be complete without a mention of its latter-day relative, the flagel. Introduced sometime in the 90s the flagel looks like a bagel that has been run over by a car. It is, in fact, a flat bagel. It is crisp and less doughy, and comes with a variety of toppings. I have to admit that I find the flagel a worthy substitute for a mediocre bagel.
And so the quest for the perfect bagel continues. We have not yet exhausted all of the bagel establishments on the east coast, but we’re getting close. I wonder if Marvin is on Facebook?