Americans have utterly ruined the bagel

Up in Montreal the Jews have stayed faithful to the old ways; bagels there are boiled before they're baked

July 28, 2022 15:18

The first time I saw New York, it was August. It was unbearably hot and humid and the whole place reeked of rotting vegetables.

I have since discovered that New York smells like that all year round. Except for the depths of winter, when the rotting vegetables, wherever they are hidden, freeze solid.

When I visited in late June, the intolerable summer was in force and so were large numbers of British visitors. They were celebrating their post-Covid freedom and doing all the traditional NY things, albeit at the eye-watering exchange rate of $1.20 to the pound.

One of the obligatory New York experiences is to get fleeced at a deli. These days, most Jewish New Yorkers seem to live on green juice and salad boxes, so the delis, especially in Manhattan, are for tourists and the smattering of diehards who have yet to have a heart attack. But there are next-generation artisanal operators in Brooklyn, as there are in East London.

Why anyone would want to return to the neighbourhoods that their great-grandparents worked so hard to escape is beyond me. Ditto, spending your working hours with your arms immersed in pickle water as you work on small-batch new green cucumbers. But I do appreciate the efforts of those mad enough to do it. The bialy, that noblest of Jewish rolls, nearly died entirely before the hipsters revived it.

Here I wish to pause and doff the cap of my ketchup bottle to Jack’s Gourmet, who make a mean merguez in Flatbush. And also smear myself in cream cheese in gratitude to the bagel-makers of Montreal.

The Americans have ruined the bagel. They excel at reproducing the Old World on industrial scale, the people included. They don’t have a sweet tooth: they have nothing but sweet teeth. The American idea of bread is a super-sweet doughnut, so fluffy you can chew it with the gums alone. The Jews have, as God said to Moses, gone a-whoring after the gods of the strangers of the land.

It should have been illegal to forcibly crossbreed the croissant with the doughnut to create the “cronut”; in France, it almost certainly is illegal. In 2016, a New York restaurant called Flex Mussels developed the “bagel doughnut” — the “dogel”, perhaps — which is baked from bagel dough but has the consistency of a doughnut and is stuffed with molten cream cheese. People have been shot for less.

Up in Montreal, however, the Jews have stayed faithful to the old ways. The Montreal bagel is boiled before it’s baked. It’s usually free of daft toppings and it’s smaller than the American bagel.

Which is to say, it’s a bagel, not a Jewish doughnut. Bags of them occasionally show up in Boston, like the contraband liquor that Saul Bellow’s father ran across the line from Canada during Prohibition. They are better than the bags of imported Israeli bagels which show up more regularly and suffer from a disappointing American-style fluffiness that leaves all your fillings in place.

Last week, the Montreal and New York schools faced off at Gertie, a hip and soi-disant “modern Jew-ish diner” in Williamsburg, for “Down the Bagel Hole: A Celebration of Jewish Breadways”. The main event was a bake-off between New York traditionalists like the Ess-a-Bagel chain and Shelsky’s, and the revivalists who have adopted the Montreal method, represented by Black Seed Bagels of New York.

Kat Romanow of the “Wandering Chew” blog smuggled in some samples from Montreal’s Fairmount and St-Viateur bakeries for reference, and Liz Alpern of the artisanal Jewish food company Gefilteria (yes, really) chewed the controversies of bagel technique with hip masters of the baker’s art, like Elyssa Heller of Edith’s in Williamsburg, which does a great range of post-Uri Scheft breads.

Tickets to sample these breads with a hole in them were pitched at those with a hole in the head, at $40 per person. That’s £32 or, at the current rate of exchange, 35-and-a-bit chewy delights from Carmelli’s. As adherents of the traditional boil-and-bake know, a fool and his teeth are easily parted.

Dominic Green is a historian and columnist living in Boston. He is a fellow of the royal Historical Society and the Foreign Policy Research Institute

July 28, 2022 15:18

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