The Staff of Life

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My formative years were spent living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a couple of streets south of Barney Greengrass and a few blocks north of H & H Bagels and Zabar’s.  This explains a great deal about me. In fact, our home phone number and that of Barney Greengrass differed by only one digit. People mistakenly called us all the time hoping to place orders for bagels, lox, and sundry “appetizing.” The children of the founders of Zabar’s went to elementary school with me. Plus, as a Jewish New Yorker, I grew up in a home where the bagel was considered a staple much like Wonder Bread once was in a W.A.S.P.y household of the Midwest. Thus, I believe I possess a certain expertise and exceptionally high standards regarding bread and particularly bagels. No second-class, much less third or fourth-rate bagel will do.

Although no wheat is grown in Manhattan, to my knowledge, New York City is the true bread basket of the United States in that it cultivates and provides the finest and most diverse collection of wonderful, gluten and carbohydrate-full breads anywhere. The many people from numerous cultures who have made New York City their home have contributed high quality baguettes, croissants, bagels, scones, pita, naan, rye, pumpernickel, and focaccia, to name just a few, to the culinary life of the city. Perhaps the water, barometric pressure, soot, weather, intense competition, noise, or demanding customers contribute to the high quality and variety of the bread. Who knows? But I am aware that growing up in New York City has made me into a great bread snob who is intolerant of the bread shortcomings of many other American cities.

After my tastes were well formed in New York, I then lived in the Boston area for quite a few years where I further honed my disdain for inferior breads. Although they could use some work on their bagel making, Boston is a pretty good bread city. Boston bakeries excel particularly in scones and hearty breads. Since New York is relatively close by, I was usually able to compensate for New England’s bagel shortcomings by procuring and maintaining a sufficient supply of home-grown New York bagels, which I stockpiled in my freezer. When an emergency bagel shortage arose, I resorted to the tolerable bagels of some establishments in Brookline, which had the sense and authenticity to make properly flavored bagels rather than say, cranberry, a New England food staple and favorite. Bagels should not adapt to their environments. Onion, sesame, poppy, salt, and plain are authentic bagel seasonings, indigenous to the bagel inventors of Eastern Europe.  Blueberry is not.

When I moved to the Bay Area of California, as a full-fledged adult, I held high food expectations. San Francisco, after all, was one of America’s top foodie cities. And the cuisine in the Bay Area did not disappoint. Most of the country’s produce is grown in California. Locally grown berries and a variety of green vegetables, avocados, nuts, and citrus fruit are fresh and available at times of the year when they are deemed “out of season” in the rest of the country. The fresh seafood tastes as if it has leapt on to your plate right out of the harboring Pacific Ocean. The cheeses and ice creams are hand-crafted by artisanal creameries. The “happy cows” of California are healthy and grass fed and thus produce tasty meat and milk, and the chickens are free ranging and probably cheerful and hearty as well. Many a vegetarian could justify eating meat from California.

In addition to the exceptional local ingredients that are ubiquitous in California, the Bay Area is also home to many different cultures and their cuisines. Asian food, including Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Burmese, Thai, and food from different regions of India are outstanding. Mexican and Latin American cuisine also outranks that of New York. Despite the numerous merits and the diversity of the California food culture, the bread disappoints. And the bagels, alas, are third-rate or worse.

I arrived in the Bay Area, optimistic, assuming the best about the quality of the bagels, since the cuisine of California was consistently excellent. When exploring my new suburban neighborhood, I observed a bagel shop within walking distance of my house, which I took as a good sign. However, the first bagel I encountered in this bakery, which was prominently displayed in a case near the store’s entrance, was “mango walnut.” I use quotation marks because I do not believe that this is a legitimate bagel type. Its closest neighbors were blueberry and chocolate chip. I was ready to flee and return to New York. Didn’t these faux bagel makers realize that the Polish Jews who created the bagel had no access to tropical fruit. Fusion cuisine does not apply to the bagel.  Despite my astonishment and deep concerns, I purchased a few sesame bagels and some cinnamon raisin bagels for my Protestant husband from Oklahoma, who has low bagel standards. While I do not really approve of the cinnamon raisin bagel, I have acquiesced to buying it for the other members of my family. I will in no way support the mango walnut bagel.

The bagels from my neighborhood store were middling. Upon the recommendation of an older Jewish friend, though one who had spent most of her life in California, I visited another bagel establishment in town that was not within walking distance. The store was named “New York Bagels” or “Brooklyn Bagels,” which raised my suspicions. “They protest too much,” I thought. The bagels were a bit better here, though still second tier. They would do in a pinch but would not serve as my regular supplier.

So I resorted to mail order. Destiny was on my side, for just around the time that my bagel crisis emerged, The New York Times printed an article about New York City bagel shops that shipped bagels anywhere in the Continental U.S., at lower cost than Zabar’s and H & H. So I called a place in Queens that was reviewed favorably. The guy who took the order made be homesick. He had a strong New York accent and joked with me and dished sarcastic barbs about the bad California bagels. The three dozen bagels that I ordered and mostly stored in the freezer, exceeded my expectations. I had found a solution to my bagel problem and was relieved. Unfortunately, after about a year, the bagel shop stopped shipping because it was too costly.

For quite a few years I have had to make do with periodic expensive shipments of supplies from Zabar’s and so-so bagels from the store near at the other end of town. Recently I discovered a San Francisco-based bagel maker selling their wares at our local farmers’ market. I was not taking any risks, so I interrogated the proprietor and baker before making any purchases. He and his brother were Los Angeles Jews who earnestly wanted to provide good traditional Jewish foods to the Bay Area. They made only appropriately flavored bagels, not even cinnamon raisin. This was a positive sign, and with the exception of growing up in L.A., they had fine credentials. They also sold ruggelach, babka, lox, and spreads. I was euphoric when I returned home with a bag brimming with Jewish delicacies.

On the plus side, the ruggelach were divine, especially the ones filled with dried California apricots, and the babka was also very good. But the bagels were far too large, dense, and difficult to chew. Their texture was all wrong. They were also dredged in excessive amounts of their respective flavorings of sesame, poppy, salt, and “everything,” so that it was difficult to determine what lay beneath. It pains me to criticize these bagel bakers, whose name I do not wish to disclose, because they genuinely try to produce authentic bagels and related foods; their mission is true. I continue to buy most of their products with the exception of their bagels. I have resorted again to importing bagels at regular intervals from New York.

For now, I have given up on the bagels of the West Coast. I have some theories but am still not certain about the source of the problem. The baguettes in the suburban Bay Area also leave something to be desired. They are too soft and taste like white bread. The scones are lacking as well. They have the flavor and texture of cake. Perhaps the age-old, unproven explanation: “it’s the water,” has merit. There must be a certain je ne sais quoi that makes the New York bagel, well, a New York bagel. While I’ll gladly take a Bay Area-based Philz or Blue Bottle coffee any day over a “regular” from Dunkin’ Donuts or a Manhattan coffee shop, I will never opt for any bagel baked West of the Hudson River.

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