The über-popular, ubiquitous bagel, now on every street corner, wasn’t always so well known. An article in the December 17, 1951, New York Times had to define the item and offer the spelling “baygle” as a pronunciation guide. But little-known as bagels were, a labor dispute that closed 32 of the city’s 34 bagel bakeries left New York nearly bagel-less and bereft, a city already used to consuming more than a million bagels over the course of a weekend. More recently, in May of last year, a three-hour closing of H&H Bagels on the Upper West Side due to tax payment issues caused a bit of panic among the bagel-loving populace.
These days bagels are arguably a New York icon. The city is so big and diverse there isn’t really a quintessential New York City food item or specialty, but if there was it might have to be the bagel.
Many New Yorkers have been complaining for years that bagels aren’t what they used to be: too big, too fluffy, not chewy enough. “Increasing numbers of bagels resemble dinner rolls,” said Nach Waxman, owner of the cookbook store Kitchen Arts and Letters, according to a 1993 New York Times article by Molly O’Neill. “It’s an outrage. No crust, no character, no nothing.” A move from handmade products to mostly machine-made has contributed in no small part to the de-evolution of the product.
Although I grew up in a small Vermont village in the ’70s, we were lucky to be able to purchase exotic fare like locally made futomaki and quality bagels and lox shipped in from the metropolis four hours south of us. I remember my mom packing me exotic school lunches of bagel and lox sandwiches.
My favorite bagel was and still is onion, although I like most kinds. Blueberry and pumpernickel are probably my least favorite. Plain, garlic, sesame and poppy are all good, although don’t eat the latter if you face drug-testing or you’ll come out positive for opiates — drugs like morphine and heroin come from poppies too.
Everything, or “the works” bagels, and cinnamon raisin are flavors that have so much going on you don’t need a fatty spread and can enjoy them unadorned, as I’ve done when dieting. Says Ed Levine in New York Eats (St. Martin’s, 1992), “A bagel creation that would have my parents turning over in their graves is the oat-bran bagel with blueberries and strawberries. It’s a bagel nightmare, an ill-conceived bagel form if there ever was one.” Even in 1982, according to a Florence Fabricant piece, you could find bagels in flavors like chocolate chip or a vegetable mélange of sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli and spinach.
Although bagels make lovely sturdy sandwiches with any filling bread goes with, the classic companion for bagels is any kind of smoked fish. It can be buttery white sable, intense lox, cured gravlax, or any provenance of smoked salmon. Whitefish spread is lovely too. And a few capers and or red onions gild the lily perfectly.
For simpler fare there’s butter, which I love on toasted bagels — otherwise I’ll take them untoasted, thank you. And I like the occasional caloric splurge of vegetable cream cheese on my bagel, which has also enticed my daughter since babyhood to eat her veggies.
I’ve never made my own bagels because I have a source for good ones — the Red Hook Bagel Shoppe, not far from where I live. They’re so fresh they go stale before the day is out, so I buy a bunch, slice them in half the long way and pop them in the freezer. The ones I buy at the supermarket bakery are pretty decent, though, in a pinch, and also full of preservatives so they keep for a few days.
But making your own looks like fun. Key for taste and texture, per some pros, is a high-gluten flour and malt syrup. Bagels and soft pretzels are the only bread products I know of that are boiled before baking. This helps create the smooth sheen and crackly crust that makes the bagel so temptingly bitable.
The bagel is believed to have been born in Poland, or maybe in Vienna, and possibly created to honor the Polish king in the late 1600s when he saved Austria from Turkish invaders. Another theory is that it was created to give to women when they were giving birth to babies. The origin of the word may come from the Yiddish beigen, to bend, or bugel, from the German for riding stirrup, in honor of the king’s favorite hobby.
In the early 1900s, Eastern European immigrants brought the bagel with them to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but until the ’60s they were little known outside urban Jewish communities.
A Kraft product called Bagel-fuls is made of soft fluffy breadsticks stuffed with cream cheese, a “bagel” in Twinkie form. The famous Montreal bagel is acclaimed by many: sweeter, smaller, chewier than its New York counterpart, and kissed by wood-smoke. I had one this summer, at the source, and can understand the appeal, but I’m happy to stick to the classic New York style I’ve loved for 40 years.++