Our food writer returns from the east coast with a reinstated love for bagels
If this column inspires some of you to delete your gluten-free program for a day and run out to The Bagelry for a Duke (apple butter, cream cheese and cashews) then my work is done.
Here’s to the bagel—everybody’s ethnic comfort food. Nothing yields to the teeth with such slight teasing resistance, yet with such reliable satisfaction. Compared to a bagel, the donut is fluff, a mere three-bite floozy. The bagel is gluten’s better angel, the ultimate delivery system for cream cheese, lox, and pretty much anything that can spread or hold its own on top of a yeast-raised surface.
En route to New Jersey, as I was last week, I left my carbophobia at the very spiffy Virgin America terminal at SFO. Right up the shore a few blocks from my beachfront rental was a strategically located coffee house, How Ya Brewin?—(you can’t make this stuff up)—that not only poured outstanding, strong coffee in six different flavors (French Roast is my personal default) but also offered a rack of bagels underneath fresh-baked scones so authentic that they cleaved into cream-bearing shards when torn into bite-sized pieces. But forget the scones. Bagels rule here.
Once I surrendered—rather quickly and easily, I confess—I never looked back and inhaled a bagel a day for two unrepentant weeks. Far from a Polish joke, the bagel was in fact a gift from the Jewish community of Krakow way back in the 1600s. It was one of those ubiquitous baked inventions designed to celebrate childbirth that quickly became part of Yiddish cuisine. Once in New York, thanks to Polish immigrants, it was adopted by everyone with tastebuds. Cheap, versatile and—thanks to the hole in the center—easy to display and stack on a pole (the long wooden kind, not the kind from Krakow), the bagel has won over pretty much tout le monde, and morphed endlessly into varieties studded with raisins, with garlic, and even with jalapeños. My bagels of choice are the sesame bagel and the poppy seed bagel.
Is it the proximity to New York, where Davidovitch still creates authentic old-style bagels, boiled in kettles of salted water and baked in wood fires? The nearness of Asbury Park? (Where the Boss turned 65 last week, OMG.) Or simply the implicit awareness that I am cradled in the very mother hearth of the bagel, the bread of a thousand Yiddish mamas and Russian babas. Whatever. When in Jersey you gotta have bagels. The bagel has wiles that the English muffin can only dream about. If texture is to bread what location is to real estate, the bagel is the Vegas of toothiness (with apologies to Stephen Colbert). The bagel’s secret is its double process—first boiling, then baking. Hence the soft chewy interior and the smooth satiny exterior. Toasted and topped with, oh, maybe tuna and mayo (plus some pickle relish), it makes the perfect lunch. In fact I sustained my first two years of grad school on lunch of $1.35 bagels with tuna at UC Davis. (Plus coffee and cigarette.) A mixed culinary metaphor of Jewish architecture and Protestant decorating. Full disclosure: Mayo was the hot sauce of my mother’s kitchen.
Mud City in Manahawkin, NJ offers the finest sweet jumbo lump crab cake this side of Annapolis. Perfectly (lightly) seasoned and perfectly (very lightly) breaded, this crab cake arrives golden brown and sided by cole slaw that could give lessons. The view of the glistening marshes of Barnegat Bay beyond doesn’t hurt the authentic seafood ambience one bit. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER