In Search of the Holey Grail

Millions of ex-New Yorkers are scattered across the globe. It seems that there is one thing they miss most about the city. It’s not the constant activity or multiculturalism, it’s not the skyscrapers or the theater. It’s the perfect bagel.

Growing up a short drive from “the city” in northern New Jersey, I mistakenly thought bagels were a luxury that everyone enjoyed. My trips elsewhere in the country were short enough that I didn’t notice their absence; during my college years in the central part of the state they were readily available. But when I moved up the coast to Rhode Island, I started missing my weekend ritual of driving home from the bagel store with a fresh bag, still hot from the oven, in my lap. I eventually found some stores that claimed to have bagels, but they were actually day-old, chalky and the consistency of sandwich bread.

A Bagel from Bagels4u in Short Hills, NJ
A delicious bagel from Bagels4u in Short Hills, NJ

Rhode Island’s lack of good bagels led me to wonder why they were so easy to find in the New York area.

Bagels arrived in New York in the 1880s with Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. For a long time, bagels were only available within a small radius of New York and certain lucky cities like Montreal, where Eastern European Jews had also settled. But they soon grew in popularity. The first bagel plant outside of New York was opened in Connecticut in the 1920s by Polish baker Harry Lender. He eventually became famous for making bagels available in supermarkets across the nation.

In today’s cosmopolitan world, bagels are available almost everywhere in the United States. But are these bagels comparable to their New York ancestors, or are they just bread with a fancy name?

One place bagels can be found is in the cities that long ago developed traditional bagel bakeries due to immigrant populations, or in which New York bagel bakers moved and opened shops. Each of these cities has its own style of bagel which differ slightly from New York’s. Wikipedia points out Montreal bagels, which “contain malt and egg but no salt” and are “boiled in honey-sweetened water.” A BostonOnline guide to Boston bagels states that they are smaller and “fairly soft both outside and in.” These bagels, though they may differ slightly from New York’s, can claim at least some authenticity.

Another source of bagels is the supermarket. There, they are available prepackaged, both frozen and in the bread aisle. Lenders was the first to stock supermarket freezers with bagels in the 1960s, but now there are several brands, some resembling the traditional bagel more than others. In 1997, Consumer Reports tested various supermarket bagels against their fresh counterparts and preferred Sara Lee frozen bagels. Prepackaged bagels may toast into an acceptable breakfast food, but they’ll never measure up to the freshly-baked variety.

In the 1990s, a third source of bagels flourished. As a bagel craze swept the nation, bagel chains such as Einstein’s opened thousands of stores across the country. According to Business Trend Analysts, bagel consumption in America doubled from 1995 to 1999. Sadly, these new chains often eschewed authenticity in favor of pleasing the majority. Marilyn Bagel, author of The Bagel Bible, told Christian Science Monitor that companies were reinventing the bagel after the novelty of traditional bagels had worn off. Traditional bagels have simple toppings such as poppy seeds; their modern cousins have fancy flavors like chocolate chip. Also, these chains have doubled the size of the bagel, producing them in gargantuan sizes up to six ounces.

What makes the perfect New York bagel, and how is it different from those found in other cities, supermarkets and corporate chains? The best bagel store is a highly debated point, even among native New Yorkers. However, many agree on common criteria, the most important of which is the contrast between the outside and inside of the bagel. Consumer Reports writes that “an excellent bagel has a slightly crispy crust that conceals a dense, firm, and chewy inside, with some ‘pull’ when teeth sink in.” In Business Week, Michael Edelstein, owner of a 35-year-old Queens bakery, describes the perfect bagel as “crisp on the outside and light on the inside.”

How do bagels achieve this contrast? Just like bread dough, bagel dough is made with flour, salt, water and yeast. Most of the time, a sweetener such as malt, honey, or sugar is included as well. Bagels, however, are “the only bread that’s boiled before baking”, as the Christian Science Monitor points out. The formed bagels are dropped into boiling water sometimes enhanced with an additive like lye or honey. Boiling is the key step that give bagels their distinctive crust. “Boiling or steaming helps create the crusty outside that prevents expansion during baking, making for the dense, spongy finished bagel.” Bagel look-a-likes often skip this step to lower production cost and time, which is why they are such unsatisfying substitutes.

Now that bagels have been introduced to the masses, what does their future look like? With today’s interest in local food, Eric Asimov’s question in the New York Times during the height of the bagel craze is a good one to revisit: “Do Americans really want bakeries from Montauk to Maui churning out bagels?” Although trendy chains seemed to dominate the bagel market a decade ago, their numbers have been decreasing after the bagel craze of the 1990s died down. If you want to taste a good bagel, my advice is to take a trip to one of New York’s traditional bakeries (or even overnight a dozen) instead of settling for a second-rate substitute.

7 thoughts on “In Search of the Holey Grail”

  1. Damn you, now I’m really craving a good bagel, and I’m probably not going down to NYC until April….

    You’re running into an effect I’ve long observed: “Any idea with merit will be repeatedly copied—badly.” 99% of the bagels up here in Northern New England resemble circular bread, it’s like someone got a bad verbal description of a bagel and ran with it. The frustrating thing is that, despite the mediocrity of bagels at most places up here, people still seem to like them (I think it’s related to how many people would love anything if you slathered that much cream cheese on it).

    I’ve been tempted to just grab people, drag them with me down to New York, and force them to have a simple bagel (an old style one, not one of those fru-fru abominations which looks like it’s topped with floor sweepings) from any one of my favorite bagel bakeries, and force them to at least have a new standard of comparison.

    I’m like that with pizza as well, since I think that most places (here and elsewhere) serve “hot circles of garbage” that people mistakenly think are “pizza”.

    Oh well, enough rambling for one morning.

  2. I love New York for all the food. Bagels are no exception.
    But we’re here in RI, which has its own virtues, some of which are coastline and some of which are culinary.
    Have you ever tried Bagel Gourmet on Hope Street? It’s a little shop run by Mexicans in a little plaza shared by a police station, a convenience store, and a laundromat kind of close to the Wickenden end of Hope.
    I love their bagels, their bagel sandwiches with egg, cheese, meat, or any combination thereof.
    I also love their burritos (after 10 am)…

    I guess some die hards are critical, but since Barney’s closed they’re the best we got.

    Got to get to DiFara’s. That’s my holy grail.

    (Oh, and I must know that Italian “secret” place that you alluded to a while back…give it up Steph!)

    Glad to see you are enjoying your new home, along with its proximity to Julian’s. Coming from someone stuck on the other side of I-95 – I Jello you!

  3. They weren’t that hard to do, we used the recipe direct from Peter Reinhart’s Crust and Crumb book.

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