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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Appropiating Bagels

I was traveling this year and completely missed National Bagel Day, which is when I usually re-post my 1998 Chicago Tribune column on cultural appropriation and bagel variety. Propitiously, the New York Times recently posted a video featuring the last hand-rolled bagels in New York, and the legendary roller responsible for turning out as many as 3000 bagels every day.

Hand rolling is a venerable tradition -- it's how my mother made them in our kitchen, and how every bagel was made until the 1960s -- but those who watch the video may notice a couple of, shall we say, developments. First, despite the hand rolling, it appears that these bagels are not boiled. In other words, they aren't bagels at all; they are just round bread rolls. Second, enthusiastic customers of the bagel shops describe them as "fluffy," a quality not found in a true bagel, which should be crusty and chewy. It is notable that the NYTimes reporter evidently knew almost nothing about bagels, other than her own preferences.

This doesn't diminish the impressive energy and commitment of Celestino Garcia, the subject of the video, but it definitely says something about popularizing cuisines.

You can read my original column after the jump.  Remember, it was 1998.

As a child I understood very well that bagels set me apart from other kids in the neighborhood. Oh, we all played the same games and went to the same schools, but their grandparents spoke English, they went to church on Sunday, and they didn't eat bagels. We, on the other hand, ate the things all the time: as snacks, as sandwiches, as breakfast. My mother made them herself--rolling, boiling, brushing and then baking the little rings to precisely the right resilience. They came in exactly two varieties--plain and rye. The rye ones were my mother's innovation, which she considered avant garde. They were small, dense, unadorned, and ours.

These days you can find bagel stores almost everywhere. In fact, right down the block from my house you can find bagel shops three corners, selling bagels of every conceivable stripe and description. None of the places even faintly resembles a deli, but nonetheless, each has its own personality, in large part derived from the character of its workforce--though judging from appearances, most of them probably think that He-brew is an especially masculine cup of coffee. There are the prim, pleasant, middle-aged women who proudly serve Dutch apple bagels on one corner. Or you can visit the energetic teenagers who dole out chocolate chip bagels next door. If you're in the mood for some herb, you can score a few oregano-parmesan bagels from the hippies across the street.
I've long since made my peace with the inauthentic bagel outlets, and have even come to appreciate the modest virtues of shopping in a corporate-owned "bagel cafe." If nothing else, I've learned the importance of clear articulation, since terms I take for granted are too easily confused by novice bagel clerks. For example, one day I rushed into my favorite local joint and ordered "two pumpernickel." Easy enough, I thought as they shoved my bagels into a cute bakery bag. True, the bagels looked almost orange, lacking the rich, dark hue of true pumpernickel. But what did I expect from a bagel chain? And then there was that unexpected spicy smell. It was pleasant and strangely familiar, but not at all bagel-like. I dismissed it as having rubbed off, so to speak, from an adjacent bin.
It was only when I bit into the first one that I realized I was munching on, so help me, a pumpkin bagel. Pumpkin, pumpernickel--I guess it's a natural mistake.
I'm not really complaining. In America, no ethnic group can ever expect to maintain a monopoly on its cuisine. I'm sure that native Italians wince at some of the things that Americans dump on pizza, and I know Chinese restaurants here serve dishes that would be unrecognizable from Guangzhau to Beijing. Nobody even thinks to associate wieners with Vienna--and it's a good thing, too, since the Viennese would never tolerate ketchup and pickle relish.
But if the mainstreaming of bagels is not entirely an occasion for bitter lamentation, it still has to evoke at least a twinge of regret, as one more bit of ethnic flair is deracinated, homogenized and prepackaged for mass consumption.
Interestingly, it appears there is a crisis in the bagel industry. Stock prices have plunged by as much as 80 percent and one national chain has entered bankruptcy. Profits are falling and outlets are closing.
If you ask me, their problems all stem from hubris. I've got nothing against making big bucks on bagels, but there has to be a sense of proportion. They should never have started calling it the bagel "industry." Bagels should be sold in "a nice little business" where you can "make a comfortable living." And you shouldn't have national chains. Maybe a few "convenient locations" or even a "branch" or two, but that's it. Go any further and you're asking for trouble.
The bagel industry can probably recover from its spate of overexpansion, but somewhere along the line it is going to pay for fiddling with tradition. Bagel-meddlers can load almost anything into a bagel and still have it taste good, but they ought to give credit where credit is due. Bake what you must, but let's put an end to the precious preening. Stop touting "old-fashioned" blueberry and "classic" cranberry-orange!
It's not the flavors I object to, it's the adjectives. Bagels weren't invented by a bunch of MBAs, and there's never gong to be anything traditional about filling them with fruit. So if they have to overstuff somebody's heritage, all I can say is let `em eat crepes.

Posted by Steve Lubet on May 24, 2023 at 04:26 AM | Permalink


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