What is it about a fresh, warm bagel?

It evokes childhood memories, it’s what expats long for, and it comes from just one place: New York City.

Kathy Willens/AP/File
Customers wait to order at Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys on New York City’s Lower East Side. While both bialys and bagels originated in Poland, bialys have no sugar and are not boiled before baking.

I recently had a visit from a friend, a native New Yorker, who had been living abroad for three years. In the course of conversation I asked him what he missed most while living outside the country. His immediate response: bagels.

I had to smile. Unprepared for his answer, I nonetheless found it telling about the things we long for when we are away from home. His comment also made me think about bagels in particular, and why they shouldn’t be taken for granted.

For those who recall the old “Candid Camera” television show, there was one episode in which people in a southerly state (I believe it was Maryland) were approached in the parking lot of a supermarket and asked (while a hidden camera rolled) if they knew what a bagel was. Most were completely flummoxed. Even as the kid I was at the time, I couldn’t grasp this. How could anyone be unfamiliar with bagels?

Growing up in the New York metropolitan area, I lived at the epicenter of bagel culture. Bagels formed an essential part of the Saturday morning ritual in my family. While I was still asleep, my dad would head for the neighborhood bakery, then return home with a paper bag of still-warm bagels nestled in the crook of his arm. It was the sweet aroma of this fresh manna that roused me from bed.

My friend was not the only one to ever fixate on bagels while thinking of home.

Years ago, while visiting then-communist Poland, I traveled in the company of a Polish friend to the far-flung city of Lublin, near the border with the Soviet Union. Lublin was old, dark, and intimate, with cobblestone streets and horse-drawn farm carts. Enchanted with the place and the sense of remove from the civilization I knew, I turned to my friend and remarked, “Piotr, I have never felt so far away from home.” 

In the next moment a middle-aged couple stumbled out of a doorway, the man lamenting to his wife – in an accent immediately familiar to me – “I’m tellin’ ya, Agnes, this ain’t Brooklyn. You ain’t gonna get a bagel here.” 

Ah, the bagel. 

Sweet loop of delight. What makes you so special among the breads? This is a question that has inspired more than one essay, article, and newspaper Op-Ed. To put an even finer point on the question, why are New York bagels the best on earth? There, I said it. There’s nothing like a New York bagel. But why?

The explanations I’ve read run the gamut from the water to the air to trade secrets that every New York bagel bakery has sworn to guard on pain of ... what? Excommunication from the brotherhood of the bagel? Whatever the reason, I have eaten bagels from Los Angeles to Seattle to Miami and places in between, and nothing compares to the ambrosia of a New York bagel fresh from the oven, slowly partaken of while sitting on a bench in Central Park and watching the passing scene.

I live in Maine now, and even here in what many from other states consider to be the wilderness, we have bagels. Or so I thought. 

I took that same friend – the one who had returned from living abroad – to the local bagel shop, intent on satisfying his craving. He ordered one plain bagel straight up – no fancy toppings, just a slather of butter. I watched as he tucked into it. 

“Well?” I prompted.

“Oh, Bob,” he moaned with a tone of abject sadness. “It’s good in its way. But it’s not a bagel.”

Shortly thereafter he was on the bus to Manhattan, where, I knew, he would find the bagel of his dreams.

I envy him.

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