The Humble and Hol(e)y Bagel
Being treated as an object of contention is, to New Yorkers, a form of high praise. By this measure, the quintessential New York food must be the bagel. A source of disagreement over its origins, its definition, its best purveyors, and its proper add-ons, the bagel offers those looking for a debate over breakfast a whole lot to chew on. We know better than to try to settle these questions with a modest blog. But whether it’s National Bagel Day (January 15) or any other day of the year, we’re in one of the best places on earth to grapple with them while savoring the matter at hand. To that end, we paid a visit to some of our neighborhoods’ many notable local bagel shops, in the hopes of inspiring you to do the same.
The bagel came to us from Poland, through the Lower East Side, brought by Eastern European Jews. This much we know. The rest, including the preliminary question of what a bagel actually is, remains up for debate. According to Ed Levine’s much quoted New York Times definition:
A bagel is a round bread made of simple elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed. All else is not a bagel.
Unless, of course, people call it a bagel, as they sometimes do, even when referring to baked objects that only vaguely approximate the ideal described by Levine. This ontological ambiguity muddles the question of origins. Ring-shaped bread goes at least as far back as the time of the Roman Empire, when soldiers were commonly fed buccellata, a staple that may have, according to Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, served as inspiration for the communion bread of early Christians and possibly for the kak, another ring-shaped baked good popular among Arab traders and itself possibly the source for the Puglian tarello, a similarly fashioned product that dates back to the middle ages and the boiled preparation of which resembles that of the bagel. Puglia had a significant Jewish community at the time, suggesting a possible connection between the tarello and subsequent Jewish baking practices. Then again, that connection may have travelled instead down the Silk Road, where traders might have come across the girde, a boiled ring-shaped Chinese bread still made by the Uigurs today.
Whatever its antecedents, the bagel that eventually came to New York hailed from Poland, which by the late 14th century enjoyed two types of proto-bagels that had been brought in by German immigrants. One of them, the obwarzanek, derived from the soft pretzel – itself a derivation of early Christian communion bread – that served as a feast day bread. The second was brought in by Jewish bakers who themselves had come up with a sort of pretzel. Legend has it that Jews developed it back in the 9th century, when, because of Christ’s close association with bread, it was decreed illegal in some corners of Europe for them to do any baking. Boiling dough and subsequently toasting it was a way around this proscription.
Early documentation suggests that both the obwarzanek and its Jewish equivalent were regarded as luxury items and were consumed primarily on special occasions: Lent and celebrations surrounding childbirth, respectively. This began to change in the 19th century when innovations in transportation and the opening of trade routes gave far greater access to sources of wheat, which until then had been many times more expensive than rye. The drop in the cost of production made these foods far more affordable and popular, turning them from a luxury good to a common market snack. And this snack is what immigrants ultimately brought with them across the Atlantic toward the end of the 19th century.
Over two million Poles came to America between 1880 and 1920. Many of them settled in the Lower East Side. By 1900, about 70 Jewish bakeries had sprouted in that neighborhood, primarily along Hester and Rivington Streets, to cater to the growing Jewish population. They would sell their bagels wholesale to markets and street vendors, who at the time were pervasive. Bagels enjoyed tremendous popularity as a meal-sized, portable baked product that one could grab on the go. This popularity, however, was limited to the neighborhood.
During the decades that followed, bagel bakers — who worked in appalling conditions — played a crucial role in the struggle for workers’ rights. Because of their organizational success, several iterations of bagel maker unions managed to retain control over production methods, preserving a hand-crafted approach to their work even as baking operations were becoming increasingly mechanized. This began to change in the 1960s due to a confluence of factors. New machinery could produce a rough approximation of the bagel at a far faster rate than bakers. Dough preservatives allowed the transportation of bagels across larger distances. Freezing allowed their preservation over time. These changes in production, along with the introduction of new bagel varieties and fillings (including, for the first time, sandwich fillings) allowed producers to cultivate (and meet) a growing interest in bagels outside of the Jewish community. Unfortunately, this popularization was achieved at the expense of the high quality standards that traditional bagel makers had sought to maintain. By the 1970s, food critics were already lamenting the death of the bagel and, specifically, decrying their increasingly outsized dimensions and soft texture, the result — according to food critic Mimi Sheraton — of wanting to charge higher prices and of the liberal use of dough conditioners and preservatives in order to extend shelf life and please a public too lazy to chew.
Luckily, traditional bagel making methods have enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades, and because folks in the Village have long nurtured a hard-earned appreciation for difficult pleasures, our neighborhoods enjoy no shortage of traditional bagel shops where you can enjoy the pleasures of bagels. To give the reader a sense, this intrepid blogger visited three notable ones, selected for variety and, to provide an adequate basis for comparison, ordering the same thing at each — an egg and cheddar on multi-grain. Here are the results:
Murray’s Bagel (500 6th Avenue @13th Street)
In operation since 1996, this Greenwich village institution is the brainchild of Adam Pomerantz, a former banker done good. Tired of the corporate life, he dreamed of opening a business that served the food that he loved as a child. One day, he made his move. In preparation for his new career, he familiarized himself with the bagel making process by working as an apprentice from 2am to 11am at a traditional New Jersey bagel baker. He then embarked on a bagel tasting tour throughout the city and experimented with recipes until finding the ones he liked. What you now taste is the fruit of these efforts. Murray’s Bagel is named after Adam’s father, who introduced him to the foods that he now serves at his shop.
Murray’s bagels are relatively large and semi dense. The one I had was the sweetest of the bagels I tried. This sweetness has a light caramelized note that lent some depth to the flavor. Its crust had the most notable crackle of the three.
Tompkins Square Bagels (TSB) (165 Avenue A @11th Street)
This tremendously popular East Village destination opened its doors in 2011. Its owner Christopher Pugliese has long been in the food industry, including several years at Gravesend’s Bake City Bagels during his high school and college years. After subsequently working for several high-end restaurants, Christopher was drawn to the idea of opening a place for the average person, a gathering place firmly embedded in the community. He decided on a bagel shop, and put some thought into every last aspect of the operation, from the type of oven to the psychological effect of colors that he might use on the wall. His careful attention paid off. TSB became a hit and subsequently an Instagram favorite on account of its extensive and unorthodox varieties of cream cheese. But going back to our good old egg and cheddar…
TSB’s bagel was less sweet than Murray’s and a bit larger. The crumb had a fairly spongy quality, and oat flavor was definitely noticeable in the multigrain mix.
Black Seed Bagel (BSB) (176 1st Avenue @11th Street)
Launched in 2014 by restaurateurs Noah Bernamoff and Matt Kliegmanbaker, along with head baker and partner Dianna Daoheung, BSB draws inspiration from the Montreal-style bagel, which tends to be denser, less salty, and smaller than its New York counterpart, and which is baked in a wood-fired oven, like a pizza, rather than in a fish oven with a revolving tray. For BSB, Daoheung developed a sort of New York-Montreal hybrid that makes prominent use of seeds in their mixes. She has been nominated twice for a James Beard “Best Baker” award for this work. The East Village branch is located in what was for over a hundred years the home of the sadly departed De Robertis Pasticceria.
The BSB bagel was much smaller than the other two; it was also less sweet and less salted. The crumb was the densest and driest of the bunch; not quite like a soft pretzel, but trending in that direction. The seed flavor really shines through.
That concludes our exciting but brief bagel survey, leaving unexplored a myriad of possible items on offer at each of these shops, to say nothing of the dozens of other establishments throughout the Village. We leave you to carry on the exploration where we left off, in honor of this most quintessential of all New York foods.