Trying and Failing to Make a Great New York Bagel Is My Pandemic Hobby

There are all sorts of terrible things happening in this world that get me really angry, but I can still find it in my soul to get upset about how the bagel has been treated.

illustration of bagel with cream cheese
Photo: Illustration by Emily Lundin

It's the most American tale: Escape from oppressive conditions in your old country, make your way from the squalor and strife of downtown all the way uptown and eventually to the suburbs. Soon, you've gone from an outsider to an American success story. A hundred or so years later, after decades of assimilation, your ancestors are successful but hardly recognizable to the immigrant who came through Ellis Island with the rock-hard exterior and the soft middle with just a touch of sweetness. They're bigger, they dress differently, they smear something called cream cheese all over themselves.

That's the bagel's story in under a hundred words. Also, my family's story — if you omit the spreading cream cheese all over myself part. You don't have to go far on the Internet to read about its origins in Poland or how Harry Lender figured out how to bring them to the masses; nor do you have to wait long for the next argument over what part of the country makes them better.

The truth is that I find bagel discourse very silly. I don't care where you have to go to get bagels; as long as they're good, they can come from Greenberg's in Brooklyn, Yeastie Boys in Los Angeles, St-Viateur in Montreal, Call Your Mother in D.C., Myer's in Burlington, VT. or anywhere else on the map. I just want them treated with the sort of respect you should give any food brought over by immigrants, no matter how long they've been in America. Since I come from a long line of bagel-loving Jews from Poland, I feel like I can ask that much. Yet somewhere along the lines, subpar and even bad bagels became commonplace.

It doesn't matter what city you're in, whether it has a style of bagel all its own or not; the truth is that you're more likely to get a bad bagel these days than a good one—a softball-sized lump of boiled dough that may not even have a hole in it. And that, more than anything, offends me.

"Old-world bagels were smaller and thinner," Leah Koening, author of The Jewish Cookbook, points out. "The old bagels were more like 3 or 4 oz of dough, and many of today's bagels are often 6 oz+ monsters." The reason: Lender's ending up in freezers all across America. Bagels are supposed to be fresh, not frozen. But that's how Americans outside of a few major cities got to know them, and how they became comfortable with mediocre bagels. I wanted to get away from that. Enough that, during the pandemic, I started trying to make my own. I know it sounds like another person attempting to bake the anxiety away, but please believe me: I only undertook this quest out of spite. I mean, there are all sorts of terrible things happening in this world that get me really angry, but I can still find it in my soul to get upset about how the bagel has been treated.

For my quest, I was looking to the past, to a description of the kinds of bagels you could find in New York City throughout the first-half of the 20th century. If I was going to start making bagels, I wanted to get as old-school as possible without it turning into American Pickle 2: Electric Bageloo. I used Koenig's measurements, and visualized the kinds of bagels made by members of Bagel Bakers Local 338 as described in another 2003 Times article, this one lamenting the size of NYC bagels:

"They were made entirely by hand, of high-gluten flour, water, yeast, salt and malt syrup, mixed together in a hopper. Rollers would then take two-inch strips of dough and shape them. A designated bagel boiler would boil the bagels in an industrial kettle for less than a minute, which gave the bagel its tight skin and eventual shine. Finally, a third bagel man would put the bagels on thick redwood slats covered with burlap and place them in a brick or stone-lined oven."

Ingredients I could get, but the industrial kettle probably wasn't going to happen given that I live in an apartment in Brooklyn. A big pot would have to do. As for brick or stone-lined oven, I got very Midwestern dad about it and played around with a smoker. Taking my inspiration from some YouTube videos, I transformed the little smoker into an oven, placing a pizza stone atop a couple of bricks. It wasn't perfect, but I assume I was working with more than my ancestors in the shtetl had.

As for the recipe, I had a handful of mid century Jewish cookbooks, but none of them really offered up what I'm looking for. The closest I found was from basically ancient Internet group posting from 1994 for "Real, honest, Jewish (Lower East Side) PURIST BAGELS." I found the description interesting enough to try it, but noted the inclusion of honey in the recipe, something that reminded me of Montreal bagels. At the end of the day that didn't matter, because regional food superiority is silly, and the bagel doesn't come from Delancey Street or Mile End or Silver Lake; it comes from Eastern European Jews. That's what my little quest is really about. Trying to make a great bagel for myself that pays some tribute to where my family comes from. I love bagels because they're delicious carb bombs, but I also love them because I can connect back to something when I eat them.

So I baked my first batch, all by hand. Actually, I tried to bake my first batch, but didn't get the timing right—proofing the yeast, boiling the water, getting the fire hot enough. The first batch ended up becoming flatbread. My wife would not even try them. They were not in the same stratosphere as a bagel. All carbs are wonderful in my eyes, but I was aiming for bagels, so I took a deep breath and restarted the whole thing.

I wish I could say the second round of bagels were good. The outside didn't have the little bit of hardness I wanted, and the dough inside had a tangy flavor I really didn't like. I'm not a baker, I've never claimed to be. If anything, my bagels have neshama, the Hebrew word for soul. And, if I'm being honest, that was enough for me to start with. The makeshift wood-burning oven actually worked nicely. The inside wasn't half bad, but the outside just didn't have that crunch or shine I was looking for.

Now, several batches in, I still wouldn't serve my work to anybody except myself. I'm just fine eating my not-so-great bagels with some cream cheese and a slice or two of lox or some melted butter and some tomato slices. But I find that taking inspiration from the past as well as the present, from NYC and Montreal and Los Angeles and anywhere else I might find a great little circle of boiled and then baked dough with a hole in the middle, is what's going to help me achieve my goal of making my perfect bagel.

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