Bay-Area Bagel Deficiency? A Response to the Times

Oakland, California’s Authentic Bagel Company, owned by Mark and Jason Scott (above), wasn’t mentioned in the Times’ Bay-Area bagel takedown.

When the paper of record devotes almost 3,000 words of its Sunday magazine to the issue of why the Bay Area can’t produce a proper bagel, you know this is a matter of gravitas; that this is truly serious.

Poking around the website of the Elizabeth Weil, the author of that New York Times story, I see that she lives in San Francisco. And given that the Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, is an Oakland native and graduate of Berkeley High — and no doubt a member of the tribe – well, I can see why this topic was deemed worthy of coverage in the Times.

I have some thoughts on the subject myself. But before I respond, I feel the need to establish my credibility here, so my readers can decide whether I am worthy to comment on such a fraught issue.

I just passed the 15th anniversary of my move to the Bay Area, a place my family spent many summers (Berkeley, specifically) to escape my extremely hot hometown in Southern California. My dad is a New Yorker — so much so that after spending 30 years in California, he retired back to New York — and my mom was a Jersey girl. I grew up going back east often to visit family. I felt so comfortable in New York that I moved there right after graduating from college and, except for a stint in Israel, remained there almost 10 years. For at least three of those years, I lived around the corner from Ess-a-Bagel.

I grew up on blueberry bagels — somehow my parents would buy those for me, but not those with jalapenos; those were considered way too far afield. My parents bought them because they were all we had, and because they somehow represented a link to the homeland. We ate them and didn’t complain, because what was the point? It was like rooting for the Yankees in Southern California; we did that because we were transplants, and we ate things that reminded us of bagels but were so far from the real thing because we had no other choice.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first sunk my teeth into a real New York specimen and truly got it, that this bagel was how a bagel was supposed to taste. Things were never the same after that.

Of course I knew of the bagel problem when I first moved here, and came with a dozen New York City bagels in my backpack to stock my freezer. In my early years here, I visited New York often to see my elderly grandparents, and each time, I’d fly home with a dozen bagels in my carry-on.

Oh how times have changed.

Beauty’s Bagels, which opened in 2012, is a few blocks away from my house in Oakland. I can’t believe how a store selling white fish salad and chopped liver, in addition to a damn good bagel — has become such a hipster mecca. I also so appreciate that they make wood-fired matzo on Passover. It’s not remotely kosher, but I don’t care about that — it’s the thought that counts.

Anyhow, in my early years here, I was told that Katz’s in the city made the best New York approximation, and I believed it to be true. Then early last year I was assigned a story by Berkeleyside (a local web site whose food section I contribute to) about the hoped expansion of Authentic Bagel Company in Jack London Square. This outfit — both a restaurant and a supplier of bagels to many cafés in the Bay Area — was started by two brothers from Rhode Island, Mark and Jason Scott (the “bagel brothers,” as they were known). They were hyper-aware of the issue and were determined to make the best East Coast-West Coast hybrid — yes, in Oakland — using a combination of their grandmother’s recipe, boiling the bagels (that’s the East Coast influence) and a sourdough starter (that’s the West Coast).

At the time, Mark told me that their process is “labor-intensive and time-consuming, which is why a lot of these [other Bay Area] places don’t do it. We don’t want to bad-mouth them but if you’re talking about a bagel’s characteristics, it has to be chewy, dense and crispy and you won’t get that from steaming it or proofing it for 45 minutes to an hour. Retarding it gives it the denseness, chewiness and helps with the crust. We really stay true to how a bagel is supposed to be made.”

Of course I was skeptical. Incredulous, even. The chutzpah these two had. And then I went and tasted.

I am quoting myself now in Berkeleyside: The brothers’ business partner, Ryan Gozinsky-Irwin, who was born and bred in Oakland, says he can always tell when a native East Coaster comes in, just by the way they order. “The context in which they function gives me some indication,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told ‘I haven’t been able to get a good bagel in the Bay Area for so many years,’ and now some of them are saying our bagels are even better than New York’s. According to some of our customers, now Oakland has the best bagels in the nation.”

Of course Weil, the Times writer, went to media darling Wise Sons. Of course she went to Beauty’s. But where is the Authentic Bagel Company in this treatise? The piece is more than a simple food story; it becomes a think piece on Jewish identity and the power of food memories, how they link us to our ancestors and home. With some New York transplants claiming that Authentic Bagel Company makes the best bagel in the nation — while I will bow out from making such a grandiose statement — I humbly conclude that it should have been part of the discussion.

Alix Wall is a freelance writer and personal chef in the East Bay and beyond. Her website is TheOrganicEpicure.com

This story "Bay-Area Bagel Deficiency? A Response to the Times" was written by Alix Wall.

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