An International Hunt for the Elusive Bagel

By Gerald Eskenazi

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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I was sailing along the Nile on a fancy cruise, breakfast-time. I looked in the breadbasket, and there I saw them: bagels! On the Nile!? I knew, just knew, they couldn’t be good. And they weren’t. They were white bread made round.

Want A Schmear With That? Rosalind Eskenazi, left, finds ‘New York Style Bagels’ flavored with green tea at a shop in Sendai, Japan.
Want A Schmear With That? Rosalind Eskenazi, left, finds ‘New York Style Bagels’ flavored with green tea at a shop in Sendai, Japan.

Yet, there was a certain beauty, a symmetry, in me, a Jew, fressing on a bagel in the place we had once run away from in such a hurry, we couldn’t wait for the bread to rise.

I think I can understand how bagels made their way around the world. No, it wasn’t the Diaspora. Rather, I think it’s because Jews are inveterate travelers — that even when we have a home, we’re still looking to find something else, see someplace else. And we bring our taste buds with us.

I’ve been on a bagel quest since that trip to Egypt in January, and I have not been disappointed. My aim is to have a bagel in every foreign city I visit. In May, my wife, Rosalind, and I were in Japan. I was speaking on a cruise from Japan to Siberia to Alaska. After Tokyo (not a bagel in sight), we sailed to Sendai. And there, in an underground food court, we discovered — yes, I’m not making this up — Bagel & Bagel. This store had a neon sign that advertised itself as having “New York Style Bagels.”

Well, I thought, this is worth a taste — a bagel, halfway around the world. Got to have it with a schmear.

The bagels were tastefully arrayed at Bagel & Bagel. Muffins were sorted by size, as were the cookies — the Japanese love to stack and display. This green tea bagel tasted… well, did you ever have an aftertaste after chewing a bagel?

Still, my quest was continuing, and I was glad I did it, if only for the fact that I could brag to my wide-eyed friends back home. I mumbled something about the New York water, and about gluten, and hand-kneading, but the pleasant people running the place didn’t know what I was talking about.

We went back to the boat and headed for Siberia. Not a bagel in sight, unfortunately. It would have alleviated the joylessness of the Russian customs people, who stared at me, stared at my passport, then took another look at me, as if I were some guy trying to sneak into their country. Fat chance — me, becoming an ex-pat in a place without a bagel.

Finally, America. Well, Alaska. I could not see Russia from where I was in Anchorage, but our young guide took us to a typical Alaskan eatery, the Snow City Café. And there on the menu, with your eggs, you had your choice of toast — or a bagel. Jackpot!

Did I want it toasted? I was asked. “No, neat,” I replied, smartly, somewhat hip, I thought.

The bagel arrived on its own plate and looked imposing. Good-looking brownish crust. I took a bite — it was the real thing. Excitedly, I called over the waiter. He told me it was a sourdough bagel. Of course. What else would you have in this almost frontier town? “We don’t make it here,” he admitted. “It comes from the bagel bakery.” Many years ago, a friend began a bagel bakery in Minot, N.D. It never went over with the locals. But Anchorage has its own bagel bakery. Go figure.

If only I had time to get to the bagel bakery. But I did wolf down the bagel, which the café sold a la carte for $2. And here I was getting it for free, along with my eggs (I eschewed the reindeer sausage, however).

Who knows where this quest will take me next? We’ve got Corey’s bar mitzvah in London in November, and then Alexa will be having a bat mitzvah in Masada in December.

So many bagels, so little time.

Gerald Eskenazi, a retired New York Times sportswriter, lectures on the news media, pop culture and sports.

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