Have I Got a Poppy Seed Bagel for You, Barack!
Turns out there’s hope for the president’s bagel predicament.
When Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner what type of bagel he liked best, he waxed nostalgic over the poppy-with-a-schmear he used to pick up at the original H&H Bagels on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He expressed shock that the iconic establishment had bitten the dust — it closed in 2012 after owner Helmer Toro pleaded guilty to grand larceny for pocketing payroll taxes.
So I set out to see what might be done to mitigate the president’s pain. (I can’t help myself; he looks a little thin.)
I called an East Side H&H offshoot — different owner; different bakery — and explained Obama’s plight.
“I would even give it to him for free if he came in,” said Jay Rushin, owner of H&H Midtown Bagels East, of the classic bagel-and-cream-cheese combo the president enjoyed in his youth. “I voted for him twice, so I guess I’d give him a bagel.”
Rushin insists his H&H uses the same original recipe as the defunct West Side store, so the president would likely find this bagel familiar.
“Yes,” Rushin said, explaining that the East Side shop was owned by Toro until 1979. “The recipe was the same, and we haven’t changed ours. (I can’t guarantee that they didn’t change theirs.) Our bagels are made the same exact way we made them 42 years ago.”
In a few months, Rushin told me, Obama will even be able to acquire an H&H bagel back on the Upper West Side. The current H&H is opening a second location — complete with old-world storefront and vintage oven — on Columbus Avenue this winter.
So what sort of bagel would Rushin offer the president? Would he nudge him to try something new?
“Everyone’s got a specific bagel preference,” he said. “I’m a classic bagel person myself, so I would respect his choice. Bagels are very, very personal.“
Not to overthink the poppy seed situation, but it did occur to me that between Columbia and the White House, President Obama has evolved in many ways. And so too has the New York City bagel scene. So I decided to reach out to a couple of the city’s best appetizing shops to see what they might create for POTUS to rival his old fave.
“I think he’d still want a poppy seed bagel,” said Noah Bernamoff, owner of Mile End Deli and Black Seed Bagels in New York, “but instead of merely a schmear, I think he would really want the #2 from Black Seed, which is horseradish schmear, beet-cured lox, watermelon radish and herbs. It’s deliciously balanced, subtle yet sophisticated, and made from first-rate ingredients.”
That’s a far cry from the simple nosh of the president’s youth, but then again he’s come a long way since those university days.
“He wants this bagel because he’s also subtle yet sophisticated — equal parts modern and classic,” Bernamoff said. “He and the First Lady also care deeply about healthy, seasonal eating, which makes this bagel sandwich a perfect late-summer breakfast.”
Niki Russ Federman, a 4th-generation owner of Russ & Daughters, the 101-year-old appetizing shop on New York’s Lower East Side, had a different take:
“There is a sign that hangs in Russ & Daughters and no one can say how long it’s been there, it’s certainly been there my whole life, and the sign says de gustibus non est disputandum — in matters of taste, there can be no dispute. So if the President’s favorite is a poppy bagel, I’d give him our poppy bagel,” Federman said.
“Russ is all about tradition and keeping tradition moving forward. While he’s young and forward thinking and a visionary, there’s a timelessness to his style and he’s very connected to history. So I would make him a real Russ & Daughters poppy bagel with the schmear that he likes, and since he made a great nod to smoked salmon in the State of the Union in 2011 — he was talking about downsizing government, and he made this joke about how the Interior Department is in charge of salmon when they’re in fresh water; the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water, and he said, ‘I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked’ — so I certainly would make sure that he had our hand-sliced gaspé Nova smoked salmon.”
And just for the president, Bari Musacchio of Baz Bagel & Restaurant came up with a riff on her classic Baz Bagel, calling it the Star Spangled Baz Bagel. It’s — what else? — a poppy seed bagel, stacked with scallion cream cheese, all-American Nova salmon, tomato and red onion.
You’re welcome, Mr. President. Now eat something.
Liza Schoenfein is food editor of the Forward. Contact her at [email protected]