Bagels then and now
A long time ago, say before the 1950s or so, a bagel baker typically was a Jewish man, usually born in Eastern Europe, struggling over hot ovens in all seasons to eke out a living for his family in this New World of ours. He was, for example, my friend Irene's father, surviving on a subsistence income, living in a railroad flat in an apartment house near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. He worked very hard, and finally, when Irene was 16, was able to afford to send his wife and daughter to our little place in Parksville, our kuch alein, theBauman House.
Irene had few professional aspirations. She aimed to graduate from high school and become a stenographer. And then, at our little meat market, she met Robert, a young man of entirely different stock.
Robert was 20 and became quickly smitten by the beautiful Irene. He had grown up in Forest Hills, the son of a judge and a mother with advanced degrees in literature who read screenplays for films. Robert was their only child, and they had high hopes for him. He would go to law school. He would never fall in love with a girl with no yichus, no standing in the community.
Oops. But that's what happened. And Robert's parents were determined that this would not be a forever romance. By means unknown to me they were able to squash the young pair's plans and completely eliminate Irene from their family story.
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This left a broken-hearted Irene with dead dreams and a previously undiscovered passion and talent for revenge. She would show them!
She started with City College, where a bagel baker's daughter could get a solid free education. Much to her own surprise she graduated at the top of her class, along with other children of immigrant bagel bakers and sewing machine operators. And then she continued on to law school, where she again graduated with high honors and ultimately became a law professor, renowned throughout the American legal system. She married a prominent rabbi and they lived amongst the intelligentsia for the rest of their lives. They had plenty of yichus.
Robert too became a lawyer, as was planned. He never reached distinction.
But this is a digression. This is really a story about the bagels. You see, in those days, bagel baking truly was a talent. It was an art crafted by mostly Jews with an inherent feel for it. The bagels were made by hand and they were imbued with real Yiddishkeit. Irene's father may not have known it, but he was among the last in a genetic race to spawn amazing bagels. Today's bagel makers, sad to say, are another story entirely.
In those olden days, bagels were a neighborhood treat. If you went to Grand Forks, North Dakota, or Bentonville, Arkansas, or other places with tiny Jewish populations, you’d never find bagel stores, or glatt kosher meat for that matter. No. If you wanted hand-rolled perfect bagels you’d have to go to a place like the esteemed Weequahic section of Newark, the progenitor of what was undoubtedly the world's best bagel-making business, Watson's Bagels on Clinton Place. Until around 1968, no one anywhere in our universe created better bagels than Watson's. And I say that as someone with a lifetime of experience as a bagel gourmet, who has consumed bagels throughout the world. My credibility is just not to be questioned!
What makes a perfect bagel? Its heft and sheen and a golden hue, and a disavowal of superfluous ingredients like cinnamon raisin. And above all, it's a rejection of the thick monstrosities that are ubiquitous today. A bagel should hover around a half inch thick, have a profound gleam, a firm hard crust, and no cleverness like St. Patrick's Day green. It's best when served hot from a genuine brick oven. And it should never be placed in a plastic bag. Never! Brown paper bags only.
Just ask any of my colleagues, mavens all, who learned to be bagel connoisseurs in Weequahic. All of them, all of us, are still in pursuit of what we had and have no more, perfect Watson's bagels, only salt or plain, piping hot and baked around the clock, utterly memorable.
When Weequahicites of our generation, graduates from the 1940s, 50's and 60's, wax nostalgic, there are certain key words that bring us back to those days in an instant. We speak a different language, the voices of memory for what was, for most, glorious days of youth. Just ask any of us what the Diner means. Or the Tavern. No ambiguity. We all know. We don't guess. We know!
And it's the same for our bagels. We know we had something unique in the world, the very best bagels.
Today, bagels have migrated everywhere.
One night, waking up in a hotel room to a flashing neon sign in Bialystok, Poland, home of the bialy, I was fixated by seeing the words identifying the shop across the street as New York Bagels. There were many thoughts that could have been generated by that sign, in that place, in the heart of Jewish Poland and our families’ lives. I did not ponder the quality of the bagels, untested by me until this very day. I thought about the strangeness of that sign and how the world moves on and bagels roll along in the flow. And, by the way, no bialys were to be had.
On a trip to Alaska, we took an enormous drive through snow-covered mountains and came across a little grocery store in, literally, the middle of an icefield. We stepped in and there, amongst the assorted foods and supplies for mountain climbing, was Sabra Chumus (not hummus); And lying serenely in the freezer, frozen bagels. Their quality remains unknown. They didn't tempt us.
Israel has become a center for bagels, as I predicted it would in the 1970s. In those days there were no bagels, only bagelach correctly called Ka’ak al-Quds, the Arab treat, covered in mountains of sesame seeds and sold in the streets. They remain delicious, but they are surely not bagels.
But there are now bagel stores galore throughout the world, and the bagels are as authentic as those in the U.S., but no better. They are too fat and too diverse. Remember, we seek diversity in our lives, but not in our bagels.
Last summer we hosted a Jerusalem kiddush in honor of our grandson's aufruf. Holy Bagel (well, what better name could there be?) did the catering. The food was delicious, but the bagels did not ring as true as the holiest bagels, Watson's.
Another place reputed to have divine bagels is Montreal. Being now related by our granddaughter's recent marriage into an esteemed and delightful Jewish Quebecois family, I must tread with caution. Therefore I will merely say that if that's what you think a bagel should taste like, please enjoy!
Our very own grandson, bred in Manhattan, educated at Montreal's McGill University, agrees. The bagels are not the stuff of dreams.
Today, here in New Jersey, there are many bagel suppliers. None of them will ever compare to Watson's but, in truth, you can't go home again! So, go for the best you can find, knowing that the best is really second best.
One more urgent addendum: Don't let any New Yorkers tell you that their bagels are better than ours in New Jersey. They are not! Emphatically!
If you want to discuss bagels, or anything else, please send me an email to [email protected]
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!