Some would say that New Yorkers take certain things to seriously. As a new New Yorker, I now fall into this category. When in reference to food, this is entirely a good thing. Take the bagel for example; found on nearly every corner, in every street-side coffee stand, in the display case of every deli and behind the counter at a majority of bodegas, this is for sure a breakfast food that this city could not live without. There are annual surveys of the five burroughs to find the best bagel, a hundred or so variations on the original recipe and few bad seeds in the bunch. It is no wonder the Atkins Diet was not popular in this carb-loving crowd.
Like most great foods, the bagel has a storied past shrouded in legend. There is the tale of the Jewish baker who in 1683 made the first bagel to resemble a stirrup in homage to the King of Poland and his favorite pastime, horseback riding. The King had dutifully fought off invasion from the Turkish and saved the day. But there is also the mention of the bagel decades before in the Community Regulations of Krakow, Poland, a text that according to historian Leo stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth.” The circular ring shape perhaps alluded to an infinite symbol of life.
Several other tellings of the bagel’s birth can be researched but regardless of origin, the bagel made its way to the United States in the same way much of our favorite cuisine has; through immigration. The 1880s brought the immigration of a large Eastern European Jewish population to Manhattan, specifically the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, and like most cultures, they brought their food. The spelling of the word changed from beygel, with the pronunciation and recipe remaining the same, first boiled then baked. Thanks to the invention of the bagel machine back in the 1960s bagels can be made by the hundreds and thus the American infatuation with this whimsically round bread grew.
Ask any New Yorker and they will be able to tell you the best spot for a bagel. Personally, I struggle to decide between my neighborhood Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side, where the lox is on display for admiration. I’ve only had their bagels twice, but I see this as the beginning of decades long love affair. The counter is simply displayed, perhaps the same way since its 1914 opening and it is difficult to resist the temptations in the case. Or the best could be be my first love, the Upper West-Side favorite, Absolute Bagels which has a wonderful selection of perfectly sized bagels and divine creamcheeses and perhaps the best everything bagel in Manhattan. I fell head-over-heels as a tourist and can’t help but venture back uptown and way out of my way, to indulge in these gems. Whatever bagel reigns as the city’s favorite, know this; the bagel you choose is one rich in history, a fad that will never die and one that couldn’t be better anywhere else.
Absolute Bagels: 2788 Broadway (between 107th and 108th Sts.)
Russ and Daughters: 179 East Houston Street (between Orchard and Allen Sts.)
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