The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, April 25, 2021
Food / Drink ... Personal Reflections ...

Not long ago, someone from my Zen group asked me about an essay that I had allegedly written regarding “the search for the perfect bagel”. Although I may have exchanged some thoughts on bagels when our group had an informal dedication ceremony several years ago when we moved into a new location (where I brought the bagels), I didn’t remember writing anything about a perfect bagel. To me, “perfect” and “bagel” amount to an oxymoron! Bagels just aren’t supposed to be perfect. Bagels are clearly a wabi-sabi kind of food. Their beauty is in their incompleteness, in their variation, imperfection and individual flaws (so long as the flaw isn’t an insect in the dough). Searching for a perfect bagel is like searching for a perfect human life. Bagels are like humans. I.e., flawed, fleeting, but capable of beauty often in idiosyncratic and unexpected ways. Bagels are a food that mimics the Zen enso (the brushstroke circle). So are donuts, but they try too hard to be perfect with all of their sugar and glazes and pretty colors. Bagels are more like the enso simply because they are imperfect and unassuming.

So searching for a perfect bagel is like searching for Zen. The journey and the search are worthwhile, but you will never manage to recognize it and hold the perfect bagel in your hand. Every real bagel has Zen in it. But you can never see just what that is.

If I had to write a story on bagels, I would reflect on how and when they have intersected with the path of my own life. I first tasted bagels in my grandparents’ unheated apartment in Passaic when I was maybe 7 or 8. I didn’t really like them. They were plain and not very fresh, and they were mostly bland and very chewy.

But when I was in 8th grade or so, my parents started taking my brother and me to some bagel shop on the backstreets of Passaic on Saturday evenings, when they were busy baking their bagel inventory for Sunday morning. You could see the hot ovens and the big pots where the bagels were boiled, guys were carrying around huge trays of unbaked bagels or taking out another batch of freshly baked bagels. It was warm and steamy in that shop. They would dump the bagels in wire baskets, and you would go to the counter and order a dozen, and you had to be careful not to burn your hands carrying the bag out because those bagels were hot and fresh! I would ask my parents to get me some salt bagels, and once we got home I’d grab one and tear it open to see the steam rising. I would get a bottle of soda and scarf down at least four of those crunchy salt bagels while watching Saturday night TV with my parents, maybe even six! If I tried to do that today, I would wind up in an ICU!

For whatever reason, we stopped going to that shop after a while, and while I was in college, bagels were pretty much off my radar. Then I moved to Arlington, VA for a few years after graduating while I worked for the federal government, and bagels were pretty much unknown down there. Washington and northern VA were still fairly “southern” back then, and Polish/Jewish food was not readily available.

But I do have one bagel memory from those years. I wound up volunteering on weekends and some weeknights with a homeless shelter and thrift shop in Alexandria. It was run by a charismatic and dedicated Catholic priest who knew the priest at the church where I was going. No, they didn’t serve bagels in the shelter kitchen. However, me and one of the guys who was on the staff had hit it off, and we had become drinking buddies of sorts. He was educated and quite intelligent, so it was nice sharing a few beers with him; he always something interesting to talk about. Along with his witty sense of humor.

Well, one day I was at the shelter and my friend told me that someone had just donated a big bag of bagels! Who knows where that person got the bagels. I looked in the bag, and yes, these seemed like bona-fide bagels, not those white-bread mutants that are sometimes sold in supermarkets labeled as “bagels”. It was early evening, and we were both in the mood for a couple of beers. But we also had those fresh bagels. So, we decided to get a 6 pack and took the bagels and got in the pickup truck that he used to deliver donated furniture from the thrift shop. We found a park somewhere in the DC suburbs and came across an inconspicuous place to park the truck — I remember that the view from the truck was pleasant, as the park was dimly lit with light stands. No one much walked by where we had parked, so we sat in the truck and opened our beers and washed down a couple of bagels, while talking about life and sharing a few laughs. After a hour or two, we drove back and that was it. That was a wabi-sabi night — nothing spectacular happened, it was highly imperfect and incomplete. And yet it perfect in its own way.

Then came law school and getting my masters degree in economics, then working in various jobs. Nothing much to do with bagels, although by then bagels were becoming more popular; and more and more bagel shops were opening in the Jersey suburbs. My next real bagel encounter was when I got a job as an economist working in Manhattan in an office building near MS Garden. Right outside our building was a plaza and one of the stores in it was a real New York bagel place. Once I discovered it, I was hooked. My usual lunch ritual was to take the elevator down to the ground floor and buy 2 fresh bagels (often still hot), then back up to my desk to munch them down. They had the classics — poppy, salt, sesame, onion — but they also had cinnamon-raisin bagels, which were starting to become popular at the time. I got married right around then, and I would often bring a few bagels home with me to share with my wife.

After 5 years or so I left that job and started with New Community Corp in Newark. Bagels played no part in that situation, but by this time, bagel shops were all over. (New Community was interested in starting small retail businesses in the disadvantaged neighborhoods in Newark, but bagels were not on their radar, unfortunately). So when I came across a shop I would stop to pick up up a bag, every now and then. And to be honest, these Jersey bagels were often just as good as the New York bagels. I first thought that city bagels were so great because of the hype about them in the NY Times. But as I said, bagels are inherently imperfect and inconsistent, and not even the NY Times can define what a true bagel should be.

When I got divorced and moved to Montclair (was still working in NYC then), I was glad to see a bagel shop just a block or so from my apartment. It was quite good, but it soon turned me off because most customers weren’t buying sacks of bagels but came in for bagel sandwiches with some sort of gourmet filling and a cup of soup to go. So eventually I just bought my bagels at the local Shop Rite bakery section. They are at least 30 cents cheaper than the Montclair place, and to be honest, they are still pretty good – they seem to be freshly made. I don’t know where Shop Rite gets them but they are usually fresh (although never hot) and are thick and dense enough to be real bagels with a thin but crunchy crust.

I’ve tried some of the “boutique bagels” from those little bakeries in downtown Montclair, but eh . . . they try too hard to be authentic, and cost too much anyway. Just like most of Montclair. Bagels from the Shop Rite bakery are plebeian and unassuming, as bagels should be. It’s unfortunate that the pandemic caused Shop Rite to wrap every bagel in plastic wrap. They really lost something doing that, it was better when you just had a pile of bagels in a bin behind glass doors, and you took a piece of wax paper and selected the ones you wanted.

And if you were wondering, I was never one to put butter or cream cheese on my bagels (although yes, this was the classic Jewish way to enjoy bagels). For a while when I was a kid I would slice a bagel and toast it and put some butter to melt in, but I got out of that habit. However, I must admit, I have taken up an odd bagel habit in the past year or so. When I was having intestinal troubles, I could sometimes lose a few pounds quickly. To make it up, I started eating more peanut butter, which goes easy on the stomach and gut. So I tried peanut butter on a bagel, and actually I liked it! It works especially well with cinnamon-raisin bagels, but can be good with most any kind of bagel so long as I don’t put too much peanut butter on the bagel.

I am not talking about slathering peanut butter over the face of a sliced bagel (I am very much AGAINST slicing bagels, that goes against nature in my opinion). If I decide to have some peanut butter with a bagel, I will eat at least half of the bagel without any PB. Then perhaps I will put a dab of PB on the next bite, and then alternate between pure bagel and bagel with a small spoonful of PB. But why not, peanut butter is plebeian and non-spectacular, just like bagels are. But too much peanut butter will overwhelm a bagel, and then you completely lose the pleasure of the bagel. You might has well then just have a PB sandwich with Wonder Bread.

The “perfect bagel”? What would you do with the rest of your life if you ever found it? Have another one? You know that it wouldn’t be as good. Yea, there are better bagels and worse bagels, there are even phony bagels. There are certain basic standards that a bagel has to meet. But it’s in the little variations and irregularities and lack of “spectacular-ness” and distinctiveness that bagels get their impermanent charm.

So that’s my life with bagels.

Oh, PS — for some reason, the local Shop Rite supermarkets seem to be slowly giving up on bagels. They only have a few varieties now, some days only one, some days you can’t find them at all. So I went back to another place over in Bloomfield, where the bagels are smaller but still relatively cheap. And you know, actually these bagels are more like the ones from my youth. Bagels generally got bigger and more puffy from the 1980’s on, with very little hole left in the middle. This is because all of the new bagel shops that were opening back then were not trying to be like the bagel bakery in Passaic that I remember; that was a pure bagel operation. The new shops were meant to be mini-luncheonettes, selling a variety of sandwiches with bagels as their bread. And for sandwiches, a bigger and less chewy bagel was needed.

So that’s the bagel that I’ve lived with for the past 40 years or so. These bagels are not necessarily bad, so long as they are a little more dense than a hard roll. However, the ones that I recently went back to hearken back to earlier days when the hole was almost the size of a quarter, and the inside of the bagel was not very puffy. (The Shop-Rite bagels, along with most every other bagel these days, even those from New York, can have some fairly large air pockets inside the crust). Well, for now anyway, my own “bagel story” continues to be written!

SECOND P.S. — the bagels in one of the local Shop Rites are plastic-wrapped no more! I couldn’t believe it — open bins of fresh bagels (behind glass doors, of course), right there for the taking (so long as you use the little square of waxed paper). And the price is still 79 cents! Well, we shall see how long that lasts. But it’s a sign of spring, a sign that perhaps the long pandemic is starting to recede and we’re going to get back a lot of those good things that got put on hold last year. Let’s hope!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:47 pm      

  1. I regret that I don’t recall my first introduction to bagels, nor have I given them much thought!

    But I suspect that the first bagel I personally ever bought was at that sams store near MS Garden that you referenced above. It was introduced to me by that Jewish guy we used to work with. It was where I had bagels & lox for the first time, and that remains a special treat for me. I typically won’t eat a bagel by itself; it is almost always part of a breakfast sandwich.

    Comment by Zreebs — May 6, 2021 @ 6:22 am

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