Special To The Jewish Week
Bagel Rivals Agree To Agree
Most bagels everywhere stink, deli mavens say.
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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.

Last Update:

11/12/2013 - 19:22


I agree wholeheartedly with Zusman and Bernamoff''s appraisal of the current state of the bagel. I'm so very interested to learn what constitutes an ideal bagel in their opinion, and even happier to say that I work for a small artisan bagel company in the foothills of Virginia, which matches their description exactly, and more!

The company is Bake'mmm bagels,www.bakemmm.com. Our bagels are fully-cooked, then frozen, employing a patented process which transforms the wheat starch, and results in a bagel which doesn't raise the blood sugar. Aside from this miracle, for anyone who has concerns about the unwanted health issues related to carbohydrates with a high gycemic index, Bake'mmm bagels are delicious! The consumer buys them frozen, stores them in the freezer at home, and can bake them at any time in a hot over for 8-10 minutes, to find a steaming hot, slightly chewy interior, with a golden brown crispy crust, and the lovely crunch of organic cornmeal on the bottom. These bagels are 100% organic, vegan, soy-free, and so very delicious, in a multitude of both traditional and more exotic flavors. Think Pumpkin-spice, and Rosemary Greek-Olive, in addition to the Big City Original (plain), Cinnamon Raisin Spice, and a wholesome Heartland Whole Wheat. I would be most interested to hear what Zusman and Bernamoff would have to say about these bagels. Would they like samples?

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