I ate a bagel for breakfast this morning. It was a St. Viateur bagel from Montreal, shipped to the supermarket in Toronto, sliced, frozen, and toasted, then shmeared liberally with Western Dairy cream cheese. I split it with my son. It was perfect. At least for me.
Since that most glorious day in Jewish history, five or centuries back, when an enterprising Krakow baker closed up that first rope of boiled dough and made the first bagel, our people have sweated, slaved, innovated, invented, and more than anything, argued and debated about what makes the perfect bagel.
A big hole or a small hole? A crisp crust or a softer one? Gas or wood ovens? Hand or machine rolled?
A surface wide enough to hold a proper load of egg salad and tuna, or one that can accommodate only butter or cream cheese?
Sesame or poppy? Everything or onion?
New York or Montreal?
Is cinnamon “kosher”?
Are rainbows ever acceptable?
The arguments erupt instantaneously and with tremendous passion – at brunch with old friends, in line at a bar mitzvah buffet, in the bakery and deli, every minute at Zabar’s, on Facebook groups packed with those spoiling for a fight. All that is required are two Jews and two bagels, and the line in the sand is drawn. Shouting will ensue. Blood will be spilled. No one will be satisfied.
That’s because the bagel, like so much of our Jewish identity, is inherently personal. How you dress. Where you daven (if you daven). How you celebrate the holidays… your idea of Jewish perfection is always going to be different from mine.
To me, the perfect bagel is from Montreal, hot out of the oven, and shmeared with Toronto style whipped/cultured cream cheese (specifically The Western Creamery brand), which is lighter, and fluffier, and sweeter than that found south of the border, or even Montreal itself.
This isn’t an objective assessment of one baked good versus another. It’s a reflection of my Jewish values… the bagel of my DNA.
I was born and raised in Toronto to parents who were exiles from Montreal, and growing up, the superiority of their hometown bagels was impressed upon me from birth. It has remained with me all my life, as I have traveled and lived and fressed bagels in every corner of the diaspora.
I’ve enjoyed wonderful bagels in Michigan, Buenos Aires, Jerusalem, Portland, and New York (especially Park Slope’s Bagel Hole). I hold a special place in my heart for the unique and under appreciated bagels of Toronto, including the hefty twister from Bagel World and Kiva’s, or the fluffy, airy, slightly salty beauties from Gryfe’s. But my faith in my preference is unshakable.
There is only one perfect bagel in my heart, and that’s the one I had this morning, and probably, tomorrow as well.
So eat your bagels and rejoice. Perfection is just a bite away.
David Sax is a Canadian journalist and author of several food books, including “Save the Deli” (2009). Follow him on Twitter @saxdavid.