Whatsa Bagel? Unraveling the great NYC vs. California bagel debate

 New York Bagels | Adobe Stock photo


By Tom Hicks

A recent article in The New York Times proclaiming that California bagels now outrank New York bagels as the best bagels in the United States set off a firestorm on Nextdoor. The lines were quickly drawn and neighbors broke down into roughly three camps:

  1. The die-hard, nothing-will-ever-be-as-good- as-New-York-bagels-because-it’s-the-water-that-gives-them-the-taste and every Ashkenazy grandmother would turn in her grave to think that California could produce a superior bagel camp.
  2. The promoters of local bagels, ranging from the committed to our local bagelries that produce fine bagels, to the you-gotta-go-only-to-LA to get a good bagel in California, to the any-old-bagel-will-do camp.
  3. The COVID-has-so-stunted-my-activities-that-I’m-excited-to-join-the-best-bagel-war camp.

I readily fall into team number 3.

I’ve eaten and long admired New York bagels. When our daughter went to school in New York City, I would willingly make the five-hour drive to pick her up, along with a couple of dozen of NYC’s finest. When dropping my daughter off, I’d always be working on an open-faced salmon lox and everything bagel as I drove across the George Washington Bridge out of Manhattan, anticipating my next visit to NYC, or the Big Bagel, as I affectionately called it.

I was obsessed with New York bagels.  Every business trip to New York included a trip to the 2nd Avenue Deli for bagels and chopped liver. I suspect the overhead bins on the shuttle from New York to Washington smelled of onion and garlic for a week after each of my trips.

Between trips to New York, I often had to satisfy my cravings with an occasional trip to the kosher deli miles from my house, dropping two dozen Einstein Bagels in the cart at Costco or, when times got really tough, settling for a bagel from the local grocery store’s baked goods bins.

Many people will tell you that pastry is pastry and baked goods are baked goods. With the right ingredients — mostly, lots of butter — a good pastry chef can replicate French pastries that will taste every bit as good as those in France. I’ve been to patisseries in Paris, and there’s something that being in Paris adds to the experience. That local French bakery may be an excellent example of French pastry, your taste buds may be ooh-and-ahhing, but the rest of your senses are telling you, strip mall in America.

You don’t, however, need to be standing in a shtetl or the Lower East Side of Manhattan to enjoy a New York bagel. It can taste as divine in a SUV zipping out of the City into Jersey or in the suburbs of Washington D.C. as it does right out of the bag on the sidewalk in Murray Hill.

A well-made bagel connects you to flour and water in an elemental way, functioning as a secular culture bridge, like corned beef or sauerkraut and hot dogs, in a way that lutefisk and balut eggs will never achieve.

Eating a bagel is a statement of nothing more than enjoying and appreciating texture unavailable in any other food. You can munch it right out of the bag, toast it and slather it with cream cheese or butter, or you can load it up with smoked fish or meat in open faced or closed face sandwiches. You can even add cinnamon and raisins and treat it as a breakfast desert.

The varieties of bagels can range widely with the flour used and the ingredients of the larder from plain to jalapeño and cheddar, though purists stick to what’s added to the outside of a plain bagel or a pumpernickel dough. I love a sundried-tomato and artichoke bread loaf but, please, keep my bagel dough unadorned.

So I jumped with relish into the bagel war on Nextdoor. Trying not to condescend or diminish those who equated the “bagel” at Lucky’s with a Bagel, I confessed I was bagel-curious. I wanted to see if California could produce a bagel on par with NYC.

I said that I would happily drive to see if the rumors of superior bagels were true; if only we weren’t in time of COVID. I admitted that I had never had NYC bagels shipped to me in California. I just wasn’t convinced they would stand up to the trip.

Then I blurted out — as much as one can on social media — that I had ordered California bagels from the much-lauded bagel bakery in Berkeley. They were slammed, and couldn’t ship until the next week, but I committed anyway, ponying up half the cost of a dozen bagels just to ship them from the East Bay to the Peninsula — to ship bagels that cost three times as much as the ersatz grocery store offering. Could they really be worth It?  Many of my neighbors touted the local hard, ringed-shape bread rolls as worthy enough.

Why go seeking greener grass when the pastures here are just fine? It was a reasonable ask … to a reasonable person! But I wasn’t just looking for a bagel. I was looking for THE bagel.  The one that The New York Times — The NEW YORK Times — said was better in California, the putative home of sourdough but never before, bagels.

And so, now I wait. I wait for the calendar to turn seven leaves. I wait for the dough to be mixed and then boiled and then baked and then packed and then shipped and then delivered to my doorstep, three thousand miles from New York City, but soon to be just a small taste away.  Eat your heart out, New York. California is the new Big Bagel!

Update: Tom Hicks reports that “the great bagel debate remains unresolved. The day before my bagels were to ship, I received a notice from the Berkeley bagel baker that they had to cancel my order “because the monsoon of orders from press coverage has caused us to suspend shipping.  We are terribly sorry about this!!” Not half a sorry a I am, dear baker. Perhaps after the holidays, they will start shipping again.  Or I’ll be forced once again to hit the road in search of the perfect bagel. I will keep you informed.

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Tom Hicks

About Tom Hicks

Tom Hicks is a gratefully retired publishing and new media executive. A transplant from the East Coast, he now resides in Pacific Grove with his wife and two ginger cats.