Squishy, flavorless and uninspired.
That’s how Portland, Oregon-based judge by day, food writer by night Michael Zusman describes the current state of bagels in this country, even here in New York City, widely regarded as the capital of Jewish deli cuisine in the United States. Zusman, who along with Nick Zukin has published The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, represented West Coast bagels at an event at Williamsburg’s The Brooklyn Kitchen last Saturday, where he squared off against East Coast rep Noah Bernamoff, chef and owner of Mile End Deli in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Spoiler alert: Setup up to debate the merits of their respective regions’ bagels, Zusman and Bernamoff pretty quickly agreed that with few exceptions, bagels everywhere stink.
“We were gonna fight, but we actually agree on 90 percent of this stuff,” Zusman said.
Over a spread of plains, sesames and poppies with a schmear and a choice of lox or whitefish, Bernamoff and Zusman spoke to a crowd of about 20 Jewish deli enthusiasts, musing on the state of not just bagels, but the state of Jewish delicatessen in America. Their thoughts ranged from questioning New York’s unchallenged status as the home of the cuisine (“Is New York truly the cultural birthplace of Jewish food?” Bernamoff wondered) to addressing the issue of toasting (“If it’s a fresh bagel, no. If it’s a day old, yes. If it’s two days old, throw it out,” Zusman declared). Both cooks agreed that the homey, simple techniques of Ashkenazi Jewish food hold little wonder for a modern, trend-focused dining public, and that that’s one reason the delicatessen tradition has declined over the previous century.
“Of course, it’s sexier,” Bernamoff said of the Sephardic-inspired cuisine that has lately been made popular by such chefs as Yotam Ottolenghi. “It’s not brown.”
“There’s just not a huge market for this stuff,” Zusman said of the traditional deli he cherishes. “It will continue to exist, but at a low level.”
But back to the bagels. How would these mavens define perfection?
“Crunchy on the outside, really chewy on the inside, with lots of wheat flavor,” Zusman said. “Baked so dark that it’s almost burnt.”
“Smoky, malty,” said Bernamoff, who naturally favors the Montreal-style bagels of his hometown, which are smaller than their south-of-the-border counterparts and baked in wood-fired ovens.
Both men also agreed a bagel should never be a sandwich.
“It’s not designed for that,” Bernamoff said. “Meat does not belong on bagels. At the deli I always get people asking me to serve them smoked meat on a bagel, and the answer is always no.”
Lauren Rothman was born, raised and still resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her fondest food memories are of Passovers spent at her Grandma Laura’s table, slurping the best chicken noodle soup with knaydelach and unraveling stuffed cabbage to eat just the filling, please. You can read more of her work on Serious Eats and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.
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