Archive for August 2nd, 2017

In the seventies, my wife was doing a medical technology course in Trenton, NJ and it was a hard slog. Her day began early ( and ended late) but one thing she looked forward to was a breakfast bagel at the hospital canteen. Not just any bagel but an egg bagel, halved and toasted on a griddle and dripping, dripping, with melted butter. Golden yellow with brown streaks, salty, buttery, crisp on the outside but dense and slightly chewy on the inside…  I never did get to taste this delectable treat but she described it so well, and so often, that I thought I had! I did however make these bagels at home, often, though I cut down on the butter.

Those are the first bagels I remember though I must have eaten bagels earlier. Those bagels are my gold standard  and I measure all others against them. I cannot imagine eating an untoasted bagel ; I would rather do without. Nowadays,  my wife and I occasionally go to Kettleman’s, a nearby deli in Somerset. We go there early and pick up our bagels at the counter … Hers is a multigrain bagel with jalapeno cream cheese, mine an egg bagel with garden vegetable cream cheese. Both toasted, of course. Washed down with a container of Kettleman’s coffee, it is a breakfast for the gods. Sitting there surrounded by other retirees, dawdling over our breakfasts, watching office-goers pick up their orders and rush out… nothing could be finer!

It is the common wisdom that the bagels in New York City are the best in the world. There is something about the texture that seems just impossible to replicate elsewhere. New York bagels have just the right amount of chewiness which contrasts nicely with the lightly glazed exterior. Those who have lived in the New York area can never forget them. I have heard of a group of New Yorkers who retired to Florida decades ago but still satisfy their hunger for the bagels of their New York days.Whenever any one of them travels to New York, it is understood that he will take along an extra carry-on bag and bring it back crammed with bagels to be shared. Luckily for me, enough New Yorkers have moved to the suburbs that the bagels in New Jersey are almost as good.

Exactly what makes New York bagels so distinctive and so good is a matter of much debate. The general opinion is that it is the New York water supply which is piped in from pristine upstate reservoirs. Admittedly, the water is very good ( at one time , it was being bottled and sold in other parts of the country for $ 2.50 for a 16 oz. bottle) but could water make so much difference in the taste of a bagel? I don’t think so but am hard pressed to think what the reason might be. My guess is that the best bagel makers, the old timers who learnt the craft from their fathers and grandfathers, never moved away from the New York area because, elsewhere, the product is not as much appreciated and the demand is much less. At least that is what I think.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I found how inferior bagels are outside of the New York area. We spent two weeks in Frisco and, purely by chance, discovered a Katz’s deli within walking distance. Naturally, I went there ASAP and picked up a half dozen bagels. What a disappointment ! They were nothing like the real thing. They were misshapen, smaller than their New York cousins and had a texture that was all wrong. They were also more expensive. I later found another bagel place , also within walking distance, where the bagels were larger but no better and where they cost $2 apiece. Two dollars for a plain untoasted bagel without at toppings! Highway robbery! At Kettlemans they are 95 cents each and at another nearby bagelry, on Wednesdays, I can get a dozen bagels, good bagels for only $ 5.49 which works out to 46 cents apiece.

Lately, I have been reading about Montreal Bagels and how they are the best in the world, better than those in New York.  That they are markedly different, I understand because there are significant differences in the way they are made. Montreal bagels are thinner and flatter, have a bigger hole and are less dense. They are also sweetish, being boiled in honeyed water before being baked in wood fired ovens. New York bagels, on the other hand are boiled in water with malt and baked in traditional ovens. This gives them a shiny crust with a hint of crispness.

Which is better? The New York or the Montreal ? Opinions abound and are divided roughly down the middle. I guess it all depends on what you are accustomed to. If you have a New York background, you will plump for the New York bagel; if you are from Montreal, you’ll vote for the Montreal variety. The only true test would be to ask those who have never eaten a bagel and are not from either New York or Montreal.  I haven’t heard of such a survey yet.


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