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The Great Bagel Divide
by Neil deMause

February 27, 2000

I love bagels.

Now, I bet you think you know what I mean, but you don't. (Unless you're thinking what I think you're thinking, in which case, get your mind out of the gutter, pal!) What I mean is, assuming you don't live where I do (in which case, get out of my house, pal!), when you think of "bagel," your mind conjures up something very different than mine.

Before you write me off as completely off my rocker, let me tell you about the Great Blueberry Bagel Divide.

I'm from New York City—born and bred. I grew up on the Upper West Side, which at the time was an unimposing little neighborhood of rent-controlled apartments and used bookstores, and the sort of underemployed intellectuals who flocked to such a neighborhood. (To this day, I can say "It's the color of the inside cover of Saul Bellow's Herzog," and anyone who grew up in an Upper West Side household will know the exact shade of dusty teal I mean.) Rampant gentrification has since rendered the UWS unrecognizable, save for two local landmarks: Zabar's, the world-famous gourmet food store with the brie and the overpriced pasta salad (but, sadly, no longer the sawdust on the floor)—and, right across the street, H&H Bagels.

When I was a kid, trips to H&H for fresh bagels were a recurring routine. We'd buy a dozen or so, with one or two for me to munch on my way home, reveling in their hot-from-the-oven yeastiness. At one time—my memories are hazy on this point—there was even a bagel tour, in which young neighborhood denizens could get a behind-the-scenes of how a lump of dough gets formed into a hoop, dunked in boiling water, baked, then finally emerges as a crisp, perfect bagel, alongside a sturdy pile of its compatriots. As I watched the magic of bagel birth, I focused on the flavors that were my favorites: poppy, pumpernickel, and my all-time favorite, salt.

What's that, you say? You've never had a salt bagel? You've never left your mouth a bleeding, achey mess by wolfing down a baked good covered in salt crystals the size of Oldsmobiles? This, you see, is why I'm worried about the future of Western civilization.

A bagel, you see, isn't meant to be a muffin with delusions of donuthood. No, the ideal bagel is a baked good of another color entirely: doughy, chewy, just the slightest bit salty, okay on its own but crying out for a topping redolent of the Old Country. You can complement it with some Philadelphia Cream Cheese (bought in tiny bricks from the refrigerator at H&H), or, better yet, with cream cheese and lox, but it's supposed to be a breadstuff—the uberbreadstuff, in fact—not some namby-pamby scone wannabe.

Talk to a typical bagel-obsessed New Yorker, and you'll hear nothing but disdain for some of the newfangled bagel variants out there these days. My girlfriend, Mindy, for example, still gets on my case for eating cinnamon raisin bagels, which to hear her talk of it are some tool of Lucifer to contaminate our precious bagely fluids with dried grapes.

Deep Freeze

How to freeze a bagel and live to tell the tale The question I'm most asked about bagels—not that I'm ever asked questions about bagels, but play along and nobody'll get hurt—is "How do you keep those little buggers from going stale?"

Fortunately, bagels are among the most well-behaved bread products in the freezer, happily keeping for weeks if properly stored. "Properly" here means in heavy-duty freezer bags, up to four or five bagels to a bag. (Be careful about piling too many bagels at once into a weak freezer, by the way—we've managed to melt all our ice cubes with the radiant heat of a dozen room-temperature bagels all inserted at once.) And once frozen, bagels tend to forget their age before the cryogenic process started, so don't be afraid to try this trick with bagels that have been sitting around overnight.

Once you've converted your bagels into bagelsicles, the trick is to restore them to their original state. For this, you'll need a toaster oven, a nice, basic toaster oven by Black and Decker or somesuch old-money appliance firm. On the off chance that you don't already have one, go buy one; I'll just wait here.

Back already? Good. The next step is to place your frozen bagels in the toaster, and set it to toast, setting the toast darkness dial to medium-light. (That's eleven o'clock on the Black & Decker dial.) In a couple of minutes, the timer will go off. The temptation at this point will be to take the bagel out and slice it in half, in preparation for toasting. Do not, repeat do not give in to this temptation.

What you've accomplished at this point, you see, is to superheat the outside of the bagel, while leaving the innards completely frozen. Bagels are truly lousy conductors of heat—but give them time, and they'll get the job done. So studiously ignore your bagel for 10, 15, even 20 minutes, while the principle of heat transfer does its magic. At this point—before the principle of staleness has begun to set in—remove the bagel, and slice it open. If you've done everything right, you'll have a well-thawed bagel through and through, ready for toasting—or even edible without toasting, if that's what floats your boat.

(Note: Peet tells me that you can also revive day-old bagels without freezing with this trick: brush the surface of the bagels with water, wrap them in a dish towel, likewise dampen the outside of the towel, then pop the whole thing in the oven at 400 for ten minutes or so. Kinda crazy, but it just might work.)


So as you can imagine, it's been a bit of a shock to discover what the rest of the world is being introduced to as part of their standard bagelry menu. Blueberry bagels. Pineapple bagels. Sun-dried tomato bagels, fer godsakes.

Ask a native New Yorker about these obscene bastardizations of our native foodstuff, and they'll—well, let's ask some native New Yorkers and hear what they have to say:

Part of the problem, undoubtedly, is that the farther you go from New York, the more the bagels, frankly, suck. (You may have had "New York Bagels" in some godforsaken place like Redwood City, California—suffice it to say that the truth-in-advertising laws are no more in effect there than with the "East L.A. Burritos" on sale in Brooklyn.) Part of the problem may be that no one out in the Great American Wilderness has bothered to devote the proper energy to bagelcraft. (Even here in New York, you can walk into many corner delis and buy ersatz "bagels" that have been steamed—they're better described as "rolls.") Another may be that the water isn't quite right—Mindy assures me that when she went to school in Albany, N.Y., the local water was too soft (or too hard—my memory's hazy again), making it impossible to produce either decent bagels or decent pizza crust.

Most bagel connoisseurs will grant the New York bagel crown to either H&H or its competitor Columbia Hot Bagels, a couple miles north on Broadway. Despite my early predilections, I've come to agree with those connoisseurs who vote for Columbia Hot as the best in the business: just the right combination of crispy outer shell and doughy, chewy innards that make for bagel perfection. H&H's bagels, by comparison, are softer and slightly sweeter—I recall reading somewhere that they use a dash of sugar in their bagels, which seems like cheating. (Mindy would no doubt have conniptions.)

In my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn (where the gentrification that ate my ancestral home is rapidly being replicated), the clear choice is La Bagel Delight, which offers excellent examples of the "dense, chewy" bagel phylum in a range that includes both garlic and egg, but stops firmly at cinnamon raisin. (The other local options are New York Bagels, which has a great grip on geography but produces soggy bagels beset with burnt onion flakes, and Bagelady, which I've never tried, mostly because I can't help reading it as an odd French noun: bah-zhel-ay-dee.) La Bagel is also the home of the Wacky Weekend Special: a dozen bagels (half onion, half plain, is our current standing order), a half- pound of nova lox (that's smoked salmon for you ferriners), a half-pound of your choice of cream cheese (no longer Philadelphia but tofu-based for this lactose- intolerant son of the Old Country), and a half-gallon of Tropicana Orange Juice. With that, we can make about eight sandwiches, with a few bagels left over to freeze and revive later. (See sidebar for more on this.)

It's a constant reminder of why I put up with living in this city—the rents may be ghastly, but at least my tiny kitchen smells of toasting bagels, their nubbins of onion just starting to brown under the toaster oven heating element. But I know that I live in an enclave, a last bastion of bagelicious purity. Across this great land of ours, a generation of young people is being raised to equate bagels with tasteless cookie-cutter confections with the consistency of foam rubber, and names like "cranberry-orange" and "lemon chiffon." Why, even H&H, the bagel mecca of my youth, now carries blueberry bagels. I bought one once. It tasted like a muffin gone awry.

Next time, I'll stick with salt. [HOME]

Neil deMause is editor of the zine HERE, and a writer for various other places you've never heard of. His tastes in food, he has been told, run toward "unsophisticated Italian."

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