Everything with a Schmear
November 23, 2008 9:52 AM   Subscribe

The perfect Sunday nosh: A short history of the bagel. In an age when allegedly edible breadstuffs that my grandmother would have barely recognized have become ubiquitous, did you know that even the Pharaohs had a yen for the iconic Jewish comfort food that is as much a symbol of New York City as baguettes are to Paris? Bagels turn out to be surprisingly easy to make at home, too, though they won't be the same without a schmear and some nice Nova. (Previously on Ask.) Extra credit: the history of everything.
posted by digaman (64 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best bagels in NYC: Columbia Bagels at 110th and Broadway. Worst: H&H.
posted by Faze at 9:54 AM on November 23, 2008

Though I've lived for 30 years in frickin' goyische pothead Babylon, I luckily grew up just a few blocks from the veritable Mecca -- oy, sorry, Jerusalem! -- of the real thing, Bagel Oasis in Queens.
posted by digaman at 10:02 AM on November 23, 2008

If bagels are so easy to make, then why they hell can't I get a decent bagel in San Francisco? Or, apparently, anywhere except New York? (Well, except for this one deli - tragically, no longer in existence - called Jaffe's Pick-a-Chick, in Brookline, MA.) All the bagel places here - well, they make a nice roll, as an expat New Yorker friend says.
posted by rtha at 10:23 AM on November 23, 2008

Can we avoid turning this into a NYC/Montreal bagel war? Can't we all just get along, like an Everything Bagel With Smoked Salmon: God's Most Perfect Food?
posted by The Whelk at 10:25 AM on November 23, 2008

I so hear you, rtha. And I should qualify -- the bagels that my husband and I have made at home are not as good as the best NY bagels (and H&H are hardly the worst, though I'm sure it feels risqué to say so.) I don't know why every Puerto Rican bodega or Korean buffet in Manhattan seems to have better bagels than anywhere else. Maybe it's like that Parisian baguette effect, which some attribute to the water, though I somehow doubt it.
posted by digaman at 10:27 AM on November 23, 2008

A few years back, food critic Ed Levine wrote in The New York Times about his month-long quest to find the best bagel in New York City. His verdict:

"Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, I salute you! Terrace Bagels, in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, huzzah! Cheers to Bagel Oasis, in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and to Murray's Bagels in Chelsea. Hot Bialys in Jamaica, Queens? Bagelry in Murray Hill? They are all superb."
posted by up in the old hotel at 10:33 AM on November 23, 2008

My writing coach had a rant one day: "What's Noah's (SF Bay Area chain deli) doing calling this a bagel? Bagels are boiled, then baked. This thing is steamed. This is not a bagel. This is a fucking bun."
posted by jet_silver at 10:42 AM on November 23, 2008

Noah's is strictly for goyim. Chocolate-chip bagels? Please.
posted by digaman at 10:46 AM on November 23, 2008

Digaman, do good bagels exist in SF? Or must I bring them with me to avoid starchy withdrawal?
posted by The Whelk at 11:00 AM on November 23, 2008

It is my suspicion that bagels became so popular because, unlike Mexican burritos or Chinese egg rolls, they don't taste ethnic.

What does that even mean?
posted by euphorb at 11:09 AM on November 23, 2008

Whelk, I'll pay you handsomely for flying me in a fresh dozen from Bagel Oasis. I dunno. I console myself with the water bagels from House of Bagels, available with decent smoked salmon at my favorite neighborhood hangout, the Reverie Café in Cole Valley, but the real thing they ain't.
posted by digaman at 11:12 AM on November 23, 2008

What on God's green Earth is the bright pink spread on the bagle at the end of the instruction video?

Maybe I'll try my hand at bagel baking one day; I'm home on paternity leave anyway (yeah, there's such a thing, people! I got eight weeks with 80% pay.) The supply of smoked salmon is good here in Norway, so I can have what seems to be the authentic acessory.
posted by Harald74 at 11:15 AM on November 23, 2008

Spookily enough, I was just leaving the house to get 'bagels'.

And I read this description. My belly rumbles. I envisage glistening lox, its salty tender unctuous flesh marbled and glistening. Slightly soft, slightly cold, cream cheese, decorated with some fresh, frondy dill, a faint smell of the forest and farm. Chewy, hard-surfaced bagels, steam emanating from their platonic toroidal form. Ready and waiting for the glorious moment when the sum is indeed greater than the parts, when that bite is taken, the release of a kind of bagel-binding energy, the fusion of three flavors and textures and the world is good and whole again for one small moment.

And there is one problem: why do I live in Southern California?
posted by lalochezia at 11:15 AM on November 23, 2008

euphorb: A plain bagel has no herbs or spices that would associate it with a particular cuisine. The dough itself could have come out of any number of Western cuisines. If one knew lots about the culinary traditions of cultures around the world and then had a bagel for the first time, it would be very difficult to say "oh, this is clearly Jewish" as opposed to English, French, Italian, German, Greek, Russian, American, etc.

What one could do, however, is rule out most non-Western sources as it's a yeast dough, and that's uncommon outside of Europe and the Middle East. So the real trouble is the use of the term 'ethnic' to denote non-Western. A better way to say it is that bagels became so popular because they're conveniently sized, durable, and can be modified to suit almost anyone's taste.
posted by jedicus at 11:24 AM on November 23, 2008

How do bagels survive the horrors of modern air travel? Do I need to seal them air-tight or sew them into my coat or what?

The migration patterns of certain groups and certain foods leads to odd food deserts. Good Indian is almost impossible to find in NYC, but is easy in New Jersey. Bagels vanish outside the East Coast but turn up wonderfully in Prague. Dutch-style pancakes follow almost exactly the migration of Dutch farmers from upstate NY across to Iowa.
posted by The Whelk at 11:28 AM on November 23, 2008

Oh and mexican food simply does not exist outside of Mexico and the U.S states that border it. Sorry.
posted by The Whelk at 11:29 AM on November 23, 2008

If you are interested in making your own bagels under New Zealand conditions I recommend Stephen's excellent bagel recipe (metafilter's own).
posted by Samuel Farrow at 11:34 AM on November 23, 2008

Good Indian is almost impossible to find in NYC, but is easy in New Jersey.

Synchronistically enough, the place that my family moved after Fresh Meadows Bagel Oasis-land was Edison NJ, which was a dreary lower middle-class strictly-white suburb in the '70s but I hear has gone full-on Indian, with good food to match. I should check it out someday.
posted by digaman at 11:36 AM on November 23, 2008

Maybe it's like that Parisian baguette effect, which some attribute to the water, though I somehow doubt it.

Many have asserted that New York's tap water is the reason the bagels taste better there than anywhere else. It's an urban legend.

Finagling his way -- Finagle A Bagel's Larry Smith proved you could make a New York bagel in Boston.
"Smith drove some Boston water to New York and compared bagels made from the two cities' tap water. 'There was absolutely no difference between them,' Smith reported. 'What makes the difference is equipment, process and ingredients.'"
posted by ericb at 11:59 AM on November 23, 2008

A lot of Central New Jersey has had a full-on upswing in the Indian population. Interestingly enough, most of it was due to the large chemical and engineering companies based there bringing in thier Indian workforce. Within a few years you had a large Indian middle-class without the typical transition period. Considering how forsaken a lot of the old train-suburbs were, it's been nothing but positive.

I like to think a snapshot of New Jersey at the Turn Of the Century was walking the half mile from your drained-swamp-angry-geese-filled development to get a large coffee at the gas station. You know, the big-ass gas station run by the huge Russian who always shortchanged you but you never said anything cause he's terrifying. And huge.

You put about 20 hazelnut creamers in your coffee and head out, turning the corner to the mini-mall with the little Indian deli. You pick up a huge sack of rice (and maybe rent a bollywood movie if you felt like getting high that night) and then make a sharp left into the shortcut through the scrub woods. The path is nicely marked and offers the sight of whole abandoned cars (how did they get this deep in?) and old foundations. You pause long enough to let a deer cross the road and then you're back inside the white-washed developement with it's "elegant" townhouse style blocks.

You, however, do not live in the row-houses, you live in the weird, motel-lookin' blocks. As you reach the stairs your Cat bounces out of the bushes. She's got a half-chewed ribbon her collar cause the neighbor girls got to her again. Oh well, that's what she gets for being an affection whore. you pick her up and balance a coffee-cup, a sack of rice, and about 20 pounds of Cat up the three stories home.
posted by The Whelk at 12:09 PM on November 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

Nice to discover that best bagels are like best pizza and everyone knows where the best are to be found. I grew up with bagels, and at that time they were strictly the bakery that Jews ate. But a smart guy in my town--he owned a Jewish bakery--M. Lender decided to freeze them and sell them to grocery stores. Whether Lender's were good or very good or passing good, once placed in supermarkets they began to catch on and then they could be shipped to the hinterlands (middle olf the country) and thence became a staple item. Why? Because you got filled up with a decent-sized bagel with trimmings, unlike, say, one donut.

Now if you are readyh, move on to what is perhaps another Jewish staple--or was--and is a lot harder to find and better than a bagel: THE BIALY
posted by Postroad at 12:13 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Loving bagels is not Jewish. Loving to complain about not being able to get a good bagel ... now that's Jewish.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:27 PM on November 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

Maybe New York's bagels don't actually taste better at all, and it's simply a reinforced bias.

This bias does not apply to Chicago dogs, which are the best hot dogs on the planet.
posted by graventy at 12:30 PM on November 23, 2008

Oh and mexican food simply does not exist outside of Mexico and the U.S states that border it. Sorry.

That's ridiculous. There's great Mexican food in Chicago and NYC, and probably any city with a large Mexican population. Authenticity snobbery is cool and all, but try basing it on facts.
posted by languagehat at 12:33 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Kossar's. Accept no substitutes.
posted by languagehat at 12:35 PM on November 23, 2008

That's ridiculous. There's great Mexican food in Chicago and NYC, and probably any city with a large Mexican population. Authenticity snobbery is cool and all, but try basing it on facts.

I would love to be proven wrong as I can't keep going to Texas to get my fix. Any places I should check out?
posted by The Whelk at 12:37 PM on November 23, 2008

Keep in mind as well that authentic and good are not synonyms. I have had plenty of bad Mexican food in Tijuana, and good Mexican food in Omaha.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:41 PM on November 23, 2008

Well you can get into hair-splitting snobby geekdom about good Mexican-American vs. good Mexican-Mexican vs good Mexican-fusion whatever. I'm just looking for really good Nachos and Cactus Soup.
posted by The Whelk at 12:47 PM on November 23, 2008

Iselin and Edison, NJ (Oak Tree Rd, etc) are great for Indian Food... especially South Indian and Gujarati cuisine.

NYC's bagels are indeed mind-blowing, but Jersey has its fair share of good bagels as well.

I ate two bagels earlier. Two of them. Then I come on here and see this post! Hah. Thanks for sharing.
posted by defenestration at 12:54 PM on November 23, 2008

God damn it, I'm in Korea and I haven't had a single bagel, good or bad, in 7 months. This is like waving a bottle of vodka in front of an alcoholic fresh from rehab... just cruel.
posted by no1hatchling at 1:00 PM on November 23, 2008

Now I want a bagel. I never say shmear, though. I try to steer clear of Yiddish words that are used by non-Yiddish speakers, as they always sound like a precious affectation to me. So shlep and ferklempt and bubbie are out, as is spatula, which is not a Yiddish word but sound Yiddish to me.

I do, however, call the people who live in the downstairs apartment downstairsniks, and when people are mean to me I tell them not to give me a canary. It's important to preserve improper Yiddish.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:00 PM on November 23, 2008

There was a pretty good article in the Los Angeles Times food section two weeks ago, about bagels. Where to get the best bagels in LA. Making them at home. How to spot the real deal. Although all through the articles, I was getting the vibe that the writers were saying, "LA bagels suck! But here's the closest thing to it that LA has. Go to New York for a real bagel!"
posted by Xere at 1:07 PM on November 23, 2008

Oops. pretty good article link.
posted by Xere at 1:09 PM on November 23, 2008

At work, Friday is bagel day. After hearing me whine about the selection - plain, whole wheat, chocolate chip, and Everything - the person responsible for placing the order (we get them from a deli nearby that makes its own, and they kind of suck but they could be worse) asked me what I wanted. "Egg," I said. "I like egg bagels. Plain is okay. Salt is good."

Nobody ever eats the egg bagels but me.
posted by rtha at 1:25 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

There was a Bagel Oasis in Seattle. Well, really there used to be two, now there is only one. It was the only good bagel I knew for so long. The owner was from Brooklyn and with his brother got a recipe from there and took it to the west coast. They were amazing, even made good Bialys. I worked there and would come home stinking of bagels, but I didn't care.
posted by piratebowling at 1:44 PM on November 23, 2008

There's a bagel joint in Menlo Park, CA that has a poster on the wall explaining, in great detail, that bagels aren't really Jewish at all. I love being lectured by a Chinese dude about how my food isn't really mine.

If you're in the South Bay, pretty much the best bagels I've found are at The Better Bagel in Mountain View. Ignore reviews from people who complain about their lack of selection or the quality of their "bagel sandwiches" - these people are heathens. HEATHENS!
posted by 1adam12 at 1:45 PM on November 23, 2008

They're well loved here in the belly of the beast, too. There's a yearly celebration in Mattoon, Illinois, the location of the main manufacturing plant for Lender's Bagels and Murray Lender himself. Every so often the festival is responsible for some pretty impressive bagelwork.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 1:53 PM on November 23, 2008

I wonder if that's the same place we get our bagels, 1adam12 (I've never been inside). The one we get them from is on Santa Cruz Ave, I think, down near El Camino.
posted by rtha at 1:55 PM on November 23, 2008

Nobody ever eats the egg bagels but me.

My dad used to love egg bagels. And salt bagels. And even garlic bagels. Garlic bagels are delicious, but if you eat garlic in the morning, you're probably already married.

Me, I'm a poppy, sesame, or pumpernickel man. Onion if I'm feeling particularly married. I can see the attraction of salt bagels, but I'd rather get the salt from a serious dose of belly lox, which the American Medical Association should release warnings about.

Everything bagels? Though I loved the "extra credit" article about their origin that I linked to in the FPP, they seem like hedging your bets to me -- like lesbians-until-graduation, or the "rugelach cheesecake" at NY's Carnegie Deli, which I find to be a strictly vulgarian establishment. (The last time I was there, I was trying to work my way through a pastrami sandwich as the old ladies crammed in the seats around me talked about their various ailments and who the best "kidney man" is in Miami.)

No fruit, candy, or jalapenos in my bagels, thank you. Whole wheat bagels can have their own rough-hewn heretical charm, but I think of them more as chewy whole-wheat bread with a hole in the middle.
posted by digaman at 2:12 PM on November 23, 2008

Egg bagels are good, so are salt bagels. They're hard to find, which makes me pretty sad, especially when people repeat back what I asked for, like I wanted to eat a baby.
posted by boo_radley at 2:24 PM on November 23, 2008

As a former NY'er now living in London it used to drive me crazy that I couldn't find a good salt bagel here. In desperation I finally decided to make my own and although it took a few tries to get it right, I'm now pretty satisfied with the result. My quest for salt bagels in London is officially over!
posted by gfrobe at 2:28 PM on November 23, 2008

My Craigslist posting, which was quite successful, actually:

free bagels, please come get them--Emergency!
I was sitting on my husband's lap perusing the multifarious offerings on MetaFilter and dad nabbit, if by the time I finally made it out the door and up the street Noah's was closed (just). [yes, I know, the bagels are steamed, not boiled, but being from NY I have learned to compromise about bagels and pizza and here in CA we have edible, excellent even burritos, so there] I got down on my knees and begged like the good atheist I am, but no, the nice young man just shook his head and I kissed the glass anyway. But I had parked in the lot behind, and guess what? The back door was open. No slouch when it comes to sudden and unanticipated infiltrations of places of business or commerce or whatever they call themselves (I call them "stores," but that's just me), I snuck around. There was a lonely forlorn looking girl sitting lost and forlorn on a bench. Long story short: said girl gave me all, I mean ALL the bagels that were slated for dumpsterhood.

I only wanted a dozen. Please come directly to my house and make your selections. I am in the process of ocd-sorting them. This is not a joke. Here's my address (for now, anyway) I haven't counted, but I think I have hundreds of bagels, and they didn't even offer to give me freezer bags! See you later. Elizabeth

Several brave and interesting people called and showed up at my house and not a bagel was wasted. I even had one a couple left for my children's breakfasts/lunches the following a.m.

p.S. I also never say "schmear" and thought cinnamon raisin bagels were a travesty back in 1977, though my then boyfriend (a Jew) favored them. No fruit, no sweets, and no asiago, please!! Plain, salt, garlic, onion, call me a purist, and everything's okay too. Although sunflower seeds on bagels kinda make me laugh.

it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
posted by emhutchinson at 2:53 PM on November 23, 2008

Great article. Thanks a lox.
posted by aftermarketradio at 3:00 PM on November 23, 2008

Bagels, huh? I remember them. I'd never heard of them, except for maybe seeing them one time in the ethnic food section at the grocery store. Then I went to middle school in Leonia, NJ. Bagels were everywhere, and in everything. The Korean deli served pizza bagels. Huh, ok.

I tried them. Didn't like them. Cream AND cheese somehow combined? Ugh. But due to the ubiquity of bagels, and social pressure, I had to find a way. Which I did. The hot buttered poppy seed bagel. Ate them for awhile, then I switched schools for high school two years later. I still had bagels from time to time, and I even learned to enjoy cream cheese, but only if it was loaded with veggies. But that was mainly when someone would bring them into the office. I left that job, went back to college, and never looked back.

I remember bagels, but that was a different period in my life.
posted by Eideteker at 3:18 PM on November 23, 2008

I should mention that Paradise on Earth is a smoked-fish platter at Barney Greengrass with two extra bagels. That's one of those places that, when it eventually disappears, as Ratner's disappeared, transformed into a Chase Manhattan bank or... soup kitchen for former money managers... New York City will be palpably diminished.
posted by digaman at 3:53 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm one of those people who always bitches about fruity bagels. Especially here in the frigid northland, where the goys think there's nothing more natural than a chocolate-chip bagel with blueberry cream cheese.

Finagle A Bagel's Larry Smith proved you could make a New York bagel in Boston.

That's a great story, but it would be better if it ended with him making Finagle a Bagel's bagels edible. Incidentally, of all the chains, I think Brueggers are the best.

The topic of bagels makes me cranky ever since I discovered I couldn't eat wheat.
posted by lunasol at 4:05 PM on November 23, 2008

Best bagels in NYC: Columbia Bagels at 110th and Broadway.

Hasn't been around for at least five years, and even when it was, Absolute, two blocks south, was better. What's coolest about the place is that it's run by a Thai family.
posted by stargell at 4:05 PM on November 23, 2008

Paradise on Earth is a smoked-fish platter at Barney Greengrass with two extra bagels.

And for our L.A. friends be sure to visit Barney Greengrass on the 5th. Floor of Barney's in Beverly Hills.
posted by ericb at 4:22 PM on November 23, 2008

No love for Montreal-style bagels? Sure, H&H is good, but my local wood-fired bagel bakery makes tastier bagels. (A bit of an apples/oranges thing, but nevertheless.)
posted by parudox at 5:40 PM on November 23, 2008

I've had some good bagles, but really none topped those fresh out of the clay oven in Kashgar handed to you by a guy that looks like an extra from Fiddler on the Roof. What? You think eastern european jewish cultural icons weren't borrowed?
posted by Pollomacho at 5:47 PM on November 23, 2008

I'm currently in love with Peter Reinhart's bagel recipe, which appears in his tome, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice."* Last time I made bagels--meh. But Reinhart's recipe and technique gave me awesome results. I won't link to it here but The Fresh Loaf has the goods. The single alteration I made was to let the dough sit overnight, unshaped.

Bagels. NOM.

*I'm not much of a baker. That's how good this book is: great bagels in spite of myself.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:58 PM on November 23, 2008

Parudox, I told you. We do not mention the war.

I actually like the thinner, woodier Montreal bagels. Don't hurt me!
posted by The Whelk at 6:28 PM on November 23, 2008

Might as well give a shout-out to Russ & Daughter's new blog, Lox Populi.
posted by ericbop at 6:29 PM on November 23, 2008

Girde nan is bagels too!

"I stopped by a baker who was kneeling on a platform next to an open-topped oven. He formed dough into round shapes and sprinkled sesame seeds and water on them. Then his upper half disappeared as he dipped into the oven to slap the circles of dough onto the inside wall. In minutes he dipped into the oven again and removed … bagels! At least that was what they looked and tasted like. Uygurs call them girde nan, round bread. I bought them frequently, and each bite increased my admiration for Uygur civilization."
-From a National Geographic article on Xinjiang.

Some photos: 1 2 3 4.
posted by parudox at 6:35 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

For the record: New York bagels are fine by me.
posted by parudox at 6:42 PM on November 23, 2008

Faced with a post like this, I'm just glad that Giles Coren explained the difference between nosh and a blowjob.
posted by bicyclefish at 6:59 PM on November 23, 2008

Holy shit, Russ and Daughters has a blog. That's great, ericbop. That place is a temple.
posted by digaman at 7:18 PM on November 23, 2008

Those Montreal bagels look just fine, and I can't wait to try them with a little saumon fumé. But there's no "war" between Montreal bagels and New York bagels. That would be like a war between the Beatles and XTC.
posted by digaman at 7:21 PM on November 23, 2008

When I lived in Albuquerque, I could get green chile bagels. Being from New Mexico, I firmly believe that most everything is improved by the addition of green chile.

I'm not the right person to ask about bagels, though, since I don't eat cream cheese -- it's one of the foodstuffs with a texture I just can't get past. I use bagels to make sandwiches.
posted by sugarfish at 9:59 PM on November 23, 2008

Oh god do I love bagels. I live on bagels. It's my go-to meal anytime of the day. Egg, All-seed, or Onion, with cream cheese, tomato and Pickapepper. A few months ago I gave up wheat to rule out some allergy issues I was having, and I would almost weep at the sight of the freshly toasted bagels we'd feed our kids. But here's the thing: I'm west coast, so I've probably never had a 'real' bagel, and now I have to have one.

Who's got the best authentic, NYC bake at home recipe?
posted by gofargogo at 11:01 AM on November 24, 2008

Gofargogo, I mentioned it above but check out The Fresh Loaf's section on bagels. (Yes, a link even though I said I wouldn't. The blog owners interview Peter Reinhart himself, so I guess he doesn't mind that they've posted his recipe.)

Notes from a lazy baker: I used brown sugar instead of malt and skipped the cornmeal and parchment in favor of my Silpat sheets. My fridge is packed, so I put the unshaped dough in the frig overnight, took it out the next morning and let it warm up and then made my bagels using the poke-ball method. The bagels were amazing. I can't say that Reinhart's is the best recipe (only because I haven't tried many) but damn, it's a great start.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:18 PM on November 24, 2008

Strangely, we used to get really great bagels at a little place in Kitchener when I was in university. Really good Montreal-style chewy bagels, so chewy that you had to use a chainmail glove to hold it when you cut is as they were really tough to cut. Well, or one of those bagel-slicer contraptions that crushes the bagel instead of slicing it.
posted by GuyZero at 5:48 PM on November 24, 2008

Ess-a-Bagel. By a mile.
posted by andromache at 8:08 PM on November 24, 2008

Ess-a-Bagel's good; we get 'em delivered to our offices every Sunday. I'm pretty sure the guy from Absolute learned his stuff there.
posted by stargell at 6:41 PM on November 25, 2008

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