Bagels: An American Tragedy

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Rob Bennett

H&H Bagels at 80th Street and Broadway in New York City

H&H Bagels, New York City's most popular bagel shop, shuttered its doors this week, causing a predicable spate of meditations on the iconic bread. There are few foods that are truly unique to New York, and the bagel is one of them. Pizza belongs to America now, but the bagel was always the undisputed property of New York, and now it has been diminished.

Or has it? I feel bad for the H&H guys, but I hated their bagels and what their bagels represented — and I am fervently hoping that the bagel can return to its roots. The corruption of bagels is a snapshot of a civilization in decline. Maybe we can make this sad event — a big and beloved business going under — a turning point for the bagel to find its way back.

Bagels, of course, began their existence amid the Jews of Eastern Europe. The name is said to derive from beugal or "bow," owing to its original horseshoe shape. It was never considered a delicacy; on the contrary, it maintained a tough, chewy, peasant's heartiness in a time when soft, finely spun flour breads were considered either the prerogative of the wealthy or a special-occasion treat, like the braided egg breads served on the Sabbath. They were good but they were chewy, and they were practically inedible after a few hours.

But that was O.K. There are lots of things that don't stay good for very long. Some of the best things, in fact. Barbecued brisket takes 15 hours to cook and is only great for 20 minutes. A fried egg goes from delicious to revolting in the time it takes to watch a YouTube video. Not everything is geared for long life. The bagel, dense and doughy and heavy, was meant to be eaten; it was the staff of life, indescribably good when hot, chewy and slathered with salty butter or cream cheese, and suitable only for throwing at windows afterwards.

But in America, things are supposed to stay good for as long as you want. And they are supposed to be easy to make. Bagels, old-fashioned ones, are hard to make. You have to poach them carefully and then let them proof for 10 hours on wooden trays. And even then, there's no guarantee that they will be good, because the mix of malt and salt and yeast requires years of practice to get right and acts differently depending on the weather, the water and other variable conditions. So basically, American bakeries looked at the increasing popularity of the bagel in midcentury and said, To hell with that. They came up with the usual shortcuts, cost-cutting measures and innovations. These include "steam baking," where you try to add a little water in the bake rather than boiling the things first and, of course, adding dough conditioners to make sure the bagels never get hard as they sit on the shelf. There are still some good bagels in the U.S., but few are made the old-fashioned way.

So the bagel became a test case of how you make something commercially viable at the cost of everything that makes it good. A supermarket bagel is basically just a round roll. It worked out fine, because Americans like to eat sandwiches, and a kind of bread that you can't split and make a sandwich out of is lucky to find any shelf space at all. (English muffins are the one exception, but even those now come in sandwich size.) People who hadn't ever encountered a real bagel enjoyed the appearance of something ethnic and exotic without any real difference in taste and texture, and this made the bagel more appealing still.

And yet it was corrupted. It was a displaced person, a refugee, and it lost its identity in its travels. It was compromised to its core, and what's worse, it advertised itself as a symbol of everything that it no longer was. Bagels are to this day referred to as New York bagels, which means Jewish bagels, though they are neither, denuded of all their tradition and taste. It's the story of the Jew who comes to New York City, builds a community, starts a hardware business, brings Yiddish to the gossip columns, and then his children marry blondes and send their kids to Choate. The bagel is a symbol of assimilation at any cost — which is one reason so many old-timers, like the great New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton, are so passionately critical of them.

And H&H, rest in peace, was the most insidious force of all in the bagel's degradation. While it was understandable that Illinois moms might want big, puffy bagels to make tuna sandwiches on, no one in the 1960s would have foreseen a day when New Yorkers preferred puffy bagels and even (gasp!) knew no other kind. And yet that is the place we've come to. As part of the complete corruption of the old ways, the bagel has become not only bigger and softer, but sweeter too. The old bagel was a symbol of hardship and scarcity, its distinctive malty, salty taste inseparable from the austerity of its origins. The new bagel is an oafish, candied monstrosity engineered for children and lazy appetites.

The hamburger of old has come back, thanks to a spate of great new chains. Heritage pigs and heritage vegetables, those coelacanths of the culinary world, have returned. Is it asking too much for someone, somewhere, to bring back the small, dense, perishable bagels in their glorious original form in New York City? Then at least some good would come of the closing of H&H. It wasn't their fault, after all, that the bagel found success only by losing its soul.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for, appears every Wednesday.