Friday, February 4, 2011

A Bagel Purist Speaks Out

OK, I admit it.  I'm both a snob and a purist when it comes to bagels.  There is a very good reason for this, so I feel justified in my rectitude.  See, I was raised on bagels.  I was eating them when only Jewish people (and a few enlightened New Yorkers) had them.  Bagels are Jewish food, and they're serious stuff.  They're a treat, actually, not everyday fare.

To me, a bagel means Sunday morning, because that's when we'd have them in my house when I was a kid.  My dad would go to a deli that had good bagels--it was always a quest to find the perfect bagels at the best price.  This was a particular challenge when we moved from Brooklyn to southern New Jersey in 1961.  Dad liked a lot of things about living "in the country," as he thought of it, but one of the sacrifices was giving up first-rate delicatessen.  Every once in a while, he'd sigh:  "What I could really go for right now is a nice hot pastrami sandwich...."  Anyhow, Dad would find a good deli and buy bagels, cream cheese, and various species of smoked fish.  Lox (cured salmon) was standard, and one test of a good deli was that they knew how to slice it:  paper thin, so that you could almost see through it.  He also liked smoked whitefish, carp, and sable.  (I haven't had carp OR sable in years, because, well, you just can't find decent deli anywhere but in New York.)

A fresh bagel--or sometimes a biali--slathered with cream cheese and layered on top with just a little lox or some other fish (not too much:  the fish was expensive) was a rare and idyllic treat.  Of course, you'd be guzzling water for the rest of the day, because the salty fish made you thirsty.

Sometime in the 80s or early 90s, bagels went mainstream.  It always fascinates me to see women in track suits who look very WASP munching on this quintessentially kosher item as though it were diet food.  And the things they put on a bagel!  Sprouts?  American cheese?  Peanut butter, for crying out loud?  I mean, I guess these things might taste OK on a bagel, and if you enjoy them, be my guest.  Who am I to tell you otherwise?  But I hope you'll forgive me for thinking it's just wrong.  Like putting mayonnaise on French fries.  (Somebody probably does that and loves it--peanut butter on French fries?  Grape jelly?  Work with me here.)

Worst of all, though, in my reactionary opinion, are sweet bagels.  Adding fruit-flavored cream cheese only heaps sin on sin.  If you want something round and sweet with a hole in the middle of it, have a doughnut, for heaven's sakes!  I mean, doesn't the chewiness of the bagel kind of contradict the sweet flavor?  It would to me.

The other abomination to me is toasting a bagel.  See, this is only supposed to happen with stale bagels.  Taking a good, fresh bagel and sticking it in the toaster to incinerate it is just disrespectful.

So here are my basic bagel rules:

1.  Bagels should be simple.  Plain is best; poppy seeds or sesame seeds are OK for a change.  Stick to that.  (Salt bagels?  Have a pretzel.  "Everything" bagels?  Sheesh.  A mish-mash!)

2.  Eat bagels when they are fresh, and don't toast them.  Reserve toasting for day-old bagels, if you've been foolish enough to let them sit around that long.

3.  A bagel may be eaten with cream cheese or butter.  There are two options:  slice the bagel crosswise, or (by far the more decadent and delightful choice) break the bagel in half and put some butter or cream cheese on the exposed round bit.  Take a bite, then put on more butter before the next bite, and so on.  This ensures that you get your full daily requirement of butter and/or cream cheese.  If you're feeling especially dissolute, you can even alternate butter and cream cheese with successive bites.

4.  Reserve sandwich fixings for bread.  Keep the topping on the bagel simple.  Cream cheese, a little lox--that's all you need.  (I occasionally make a concession to haute cuisine and have the capers, onions, and tomato with the lox, because I admit they taste good.  But no self-respecting Jew ever adorned lox with those things.  I suspect allowing them to be added to my bagel and lox is a mark of my assimilation.)

5.  Remember:  bagels aren't sweet.  Just as you wouldn't put lox on a doughnut, don't turn bagels into pastries.  They make lousy pastries anyway.  Besides, a plain bagel is better for you--and the fish has Omega-3s in it.  Bagels and lox are the true health food.

Oh, and one more thing.  "Lox" might sound like a plural, but it isn't--just like "fox" and "box" aren't.   Anyhow, "lox" is a category, like "beef" or "chicken."  So go ahead, have some lox on a bagel.  And remember to tell the girl behind the counter (who has never darkened the door of a Jewish deli) to skip toasting the bagel.


  1. Ok here's my soapbox: I think the ultimate compliment is imitation. I admit, I didn't always think that way, (Miriam used to bug the heck out of me because of it), but I am hesitant to condemn companies like Einsteins for elevating the bagel to common American breakfast food. Thanks to the general assimilation of bagels, I can satisfy my craving for a sesame seed bagel with cream cheese and lox here in the heart of Texas. It may not be exactly what a proper bagel and lox would taste like in the best deli in New York, but it satisfies the craving. I think it's also a mark of the bagel's success that variations (such as the *gasp* Sweet Bagel) have been created. One can seek to improve something even if it's already perfect. We humans are never satisfied with perfection. Say what you will, I will never scoff at a blueberry bagel. Thanks to the blueberry bagel (indirectly at least) I was able to have a hot, fresh sesame seed bagel for breakfast yesterday morning... and I didn't have to pay for a plane ticket to New York to get it.

  2. Touche. You are absolutely right, Elizabeth. The yoga (or something) is working--your view is much more enlightened than mine.

  3. I feel vindicated! My husband will only eat his bagels toasted and I wholeheartedly believe in chewy, delicious bagels. Toast is for bread! Now I wish I had a bagel!

  4. Megan, good luck finding a decent bagel in Idaho. But thanks for reading! (And if you DO find good bagels in Idaho, please let me know.)

  5. Haha- yeah... definitely nothing, especially in our small-ish town here. I enjoy following your blog! It's always so enlightening!

  6. Oh I am the sinner of sinners. A toasted honey wheat bagel with strawberry cream cheese is heaven to me. Sorry for the offense! ;-)

  7. Kim, if that's your worst sin, I don't think you have too much to worry about. Also, I make special exceptions for Mormons, as *you* would consider *me* a gentile. And since that turns *everything* on its head, I figure you're entitled to eat a bagel however you want.

    In fact, everyone is. Despite appearances, I'm not trying to impose my opinion on anyone. I'm just stating mine forcefully. I've even lapsed and had an "everything" bagel once in a while. But I'm pretty sure I never ate a sweet one, and I definitely skip the sweet cream cheese.

  8. They actually do eat mayonnaise on French fries (chips) in Brussels! It's a thicker, richer mayonnaise than we're used to, but it's very common :)

  9. I had this inspiration this morning while waiting on line at Einstein's and trying to explain why sweet bagels seemed wrong to me:

    How about chocolate sauce on spaghetti? I mean, spaghetti's bland and only tastes of what you put on it, right? So why not chocolate sauce?

    The person I was with (who likes sweet bagels but now wouldn't dare to get one in my presence, I think) found the idea of chocolate sauce on spaghetti pretty weird. Does that help make it clearer? :O) Who knows? It might be good. Sweet bagels might be good too--indeed, they obviously are for a lot of people. But it's just weird to me.

    But go ahead and have what you want. You don't need to live like I do, because you might end up as messed up as I am! :O)

    (Now we'll hear from all the people who put chocolate sauce on spaghetti...)

  10. I have to admit, this pregnant body of mine which is notorious for craving spaghetti, is very curious about the chocolate topping...