When you talk about bagels, words like “authentic,” “traditional” and “real” are bound to come up. Before they were French toast-flavored and available at every coffee shop and grocery store, bagels were the pride of Eastern European Jewish populations in Montreal and New York City. Each locale had its own distinct style and claims on quality and originality.
As the daughter of a Montrealer and a New Yorker, I’m acutely aware of this rivalry. I’ve stood in line at night for a bag of still-hot sesame bagels in Montreal, and I’ve waited patiently mid-morning for an oversized everything bagel with cream cheese and lox on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It goes without saying that I’ve disappointed and offended numerous family members on the subject of breakfast foods.
Montreal bagels tend to be smaller, thinner, sweeter and less salty than their New York City counterparts. Both are boiled, but Montreal employs wood-burning ovens for baking, while New York utilizes burlap planks. Many NYC loyalists tout the local tap water as the secret ingredient.
What the two camps have in common, however, are devoted followers with strong opinions about which bagel is best.
“New Yorkers love to talk about food in general, and they really love to debate their favorite bagel store and the best way to eat a bagel,” says Evan Giniger. His family’s bakery, Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys, located in Lower Manhattan, has been in business since 1936.
Kossar’s other specialty, the bialy, is similar to a bagel. It uses the same dough, but unlike a bagel, it isn’t boiled, and its hole is traditionally filled with roasted onions or garlic. At Kossar’s the bialys can also be filled with other ingredients such as sun dried tomatoes or olives.
Giniger’s shop is busiest on Saturday mornings, jammed with people who clamor for bagels or bialys filled with cream cheese, lox, tomato, capers and red onion. In classic New York City fashion, its bagels are made to be eaten on the go.
Montreal institutions Fairmount and St-Viateur sell bagels whole, with cream cheese tubs on the side. The ovens are fired up 24 hours a day, so you might find a crowd on a Friday night stocking up for the weekend. At about 75-85 cents apiece for a bagel, both shops also maintain their Old World prices.
I’m a New York fan, mostly due to the salt, to the chagrin of half my family. Whichever style you prefer, though, change is afoot. A hybrid creation of smaller, wood-fired bagels made with salt and perhaps a touch of honey sweetness are making their way across the U.S.
In New York City’s East Village, Black Seed Bagels, opened by a New Yorker and a Montrealer, serves bagels with the city’s signature fluffy-chewy interiors, but smaller and wood-fired like the Montreal style. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Eltana turns out small bagels boiled in honey water and baked in wood-fired ovens at a low price. Eltana doesn’t claim Montreal heritage, but the head baker did take a monthlong internship at St-Viateur.
With this new crop of crossover styles comes a new variety of toppings. Some are takes on old-school options, like beet or salmon-dill cream cheese at Black Seed, or Yemenite egg salad at Eltana. Other bagel makers put a local spin on things. Oakland’s Beauty’s Bagels employs photo-friendly avocado, while Amish jam is an option at Spread in Philadelphia.
What bagel innovators share, though, is a deep reverence for the tradition of these hand-formed, boiled rings of dough. These little tweaks mean that perhaps soon, we’ll be able to argue the merits of Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles bagels, too.