Why you should care
Because you should be able to enjoy your breakfast in peace.
I moved to London in 2013, only to be surrounded by self-proclaimed New Yorkers. And the main problem with self-proclaimed New Yorkers, I discovered, is that they won’t stop talking about their goddamned breakfast sandwiches. “Oh, but you can’t get a decent bagel in London,” they whinge. This is technically true, since Londoners spell it beigel, though in the Jewish neighborhoods on the fringes of the city, there are some very fine beigels indeed. But many of these New York transplants don’t know how bagels are made or how to tell the difference between good and bad. They just know through deep cultural indoctrination that New York bagels are the best. And so they talk about them. A lot.
Bagels are special. Not just for their chewy deliciousness or the endless adaptability of toppings and flavors. They trigger something emotional — nostalgia, tradition, a sense of place. My ancestors made bagels in Poland, and I’ve made bagels in my home kitchens in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; and now France. Amy Remsen, of Beauty’s Bagels in Oakland, California, theorizes that people form attachments to bagels as kids and continue to care about them long into adulthood. Whatever the reason, many of us have deeply ingrained bagel preferences — but only New Yorkers will tell you that yours are demonstrably incorrect. Except me, right now: New York bagels are crap, and we should stop yammering about them.
To people raised on California bagels, New York’s are the size and consistency of an airline neck pillow covered in cream cheese.
No self-respecting New Yorker would drone on about the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, but New Yorkers drone on about their bagels as though they weren’t a culinary tourist trap, the equivalent of crap fish and chips in London. The taste for New York bagels is an affectation, a sort of pushy version of “oh, but you haven’t had real tapas until you’ve had them in Barcelona.” To people raised on California bagels, the New York kind are the size and consistency of an airline neck pillow covered in cream cheese.
Of course, New Yorkers disagree. Take Magdalene Zier, who was born in Kentucky but raised in New York City and whose preferred breakfast is a toasted everything bagel with cream cheese. She would generously “extend the region of good bagels to Long Island, parts of New Jersey and perhaps even over the Connecticut border.” Beyond that, they go downhill, she says, citing a popular theory that microfauna in the water give New York bagels a special flavor. When Zier’s mom was nine months pregnant, she started sobbing over the mediocre Kentucky bagel to which she was forced to resort.
But there are other bagel joints and other bagels out there. The fluffy and expansive New York bagel, which must be toasted to be really delicious, is in constant battle with the sweeter, wood-fired bagel of Montreal. And bagel chefs across the country have broken out of those categories, finding new recipes to meld the styles. Remsen started with a Montreal bagel recipe and cut the sweetness back. But ultimately, she and her partner aspired not to make the perfect New York bagel, or the perfect Montreal one, but something both simpler and more complicated — a bagel that tasted really good. And they did: Beauty’s has landed on several lists of best Bay Area bagels. The question, self-proclaimed New Yorkers, is not why it’s so hard to get a great bagel outside New York City. It’s why you insist yours are the only ones worth eating.
Hard-boiled reasoning or half-baked? Let us know.