As part of my project exploring NYC bagels, I chatted with fellow foodie extraordinaire and native New Yorker, Adrienne Cooper of Fun Foodie NYC Tours . We nerded out about what we love about bagels and she gave me a comprehensive history lesson about where bagels originated and why they are so integral to NYC food culture. We talk childbirth in 17th Century Poland, debunk the “NYC water” theory, and discuss the polarizing topic of why you should NEVER toast your bagel. Enjoy!
Laura: Can you tell me, Adrienne, what do you do? How are you a “professional foodie?”
Adrienne: I spend a lot of time thinking about food, writing about food, and obsessing over food, also eating it, sometimes cooking it. But, I have a food tour company called Fun Foodie NYC Tours, that I started six years ago. I was working for someone else and I realized how passionate I was about learning about the history of food, because I was basically just given a script and I kept wanting to dig deeper and deeper into the history of things, which is why I decided to start my own Tour Company. When I’m not leading tours, I do some freelance writing, mostly about food; food blogs, cookbooks, things like that.
Laura: How do you feel about bagels?
Adrienne: I mean, I’m a native New Yorker. So, they’re like second hand. We grew up with a bagel in one hand and a pizza in the other. If you grew up as a native New Yorker and you had a gluten intolerance, that’s a really rough way to live. They’re absolutely a part of life. I absolutely love bagels, they mean home to me for sure.
Laura: Can you describe your perfect bagel?
Adrienne: As somebody who grew up here, I’ve seen the landscape of bagels change. And in the last few years there’s been a resurgence of appreciation for bagels. I think a big blow was the Atkins diet, when people stopped eating donuts and bagels and stuff like that, I think that hit a lot of the bagel shops hard. A lot of the places that I thought did traditional New York bagels ended up closing.
Laura: The war on carbs.
Adrienne: The worst. I think the perfect bagel needs to have a really great texture. So, it’s a balance between textures and flavors. It’s important what kind of flour you use, it’s also important how you process them. I think they should have a nice chewy texture a glossy exterior that has a little firmness to it and then inside you have the softer texture. But also flavor is really important. I think a lot of places skimp on that when they’re making the bagel dough, so they won’t necessarily salt or season the dough itself; then you wind up with a bagel may try to have toppings on it–like, my favorite is an Everything bagel, that is what I judge every bagel place on is how they do their Everything.
Laura: I am the same way.
Adrienne: And I think a good bagel needs to have a lot of flavor. On the topping of the bagel you have all those wonderful things: garlic, onion, sesame, poppy, all the things. So, if you make an Everything bagel and it’s flavorless, then shame on you.
Laura: I judge a bagel place by how they do a toasted Everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. That’s my go-to order, that’s how I judge every place. And when we first started talking about bagels you said:
Adrienne: You shouldn’t toast a bagel. For me, if I have to toast a bagel, it means that it’s old or bad. Most bagel purists I believe fall in line with my way of thinking. A really good bagel to me, if it’s fresh out of the oven, shouldn’t need to be toasted because once you toast it, you mess with the chemistry of that perfect texture. You’re going to end up with harder ends that don’t need to be there in my opinion.
Laura: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the bagel? Why has it become such a New York City Staple? When did it start? Who started it?
Adrienne: Sure, bagels as we know them really were from Eastern Europe, especially attributed to Poland: Krakow and Warsaw. And the first written account of a bagel, of course spelled differently than how we spell it now—
Laura: Can you spell it?
Adrienne: It’s like B-A-J-Y-G…there’s a variety of spellings that are sort of along that line. But the first written account of bagels is in a guidebook from 1610, and it was a Polish guidebook on the art of giving birth and it basically suggests that you provide a bagel to a woman during childbirth. To bite down upon, one assumes.
Laura: Oh ok, I was thinking comfort food.
Adrienne: I think it accomplishes two things at once, you know, helps her scream through the pain, also—tastes delicious! You need your sustenance.
Laura: You do, that’s helpful.
Adrienne: They were just a staple of 16th, 17th Century Polish diet. They were for everybody, so whatever your status in the world was, you probably had people you get bagels from. The people selling bagels were often very, very poor, but that’s like most breads and rolls throughout history, it was a common thing that you ate. Then of course they left Poland when the Jews who were making them left Poland for the various reasons, including the Pogroms or the Holocaust. And so from the late 1800s to the early 1900s as they were fleeing from Poland, they made their way throughout the world, including first, before coming to New York City, to London. What is now a very Indian-centric neighborhood, the Brick Lane District, had a lot of Ashkenazi Jews who lived there for a while, so you’d find all these bagel shops. And then of course people talk about the Montreal bagels. A lot of those Eastern European Jews fled to Canada as well as coming to the U.S. So, when you think about it, it makes sense. This group of bagel eaters heading over there.
Laura: Quick pause. Can you tell us: what is a Montreal-style bagel and how is it different than a New York-style bagel?
Adrienne: The Montreal bagels tend to use slightly sweeter dough and they’re usually much smaller than what we are used to in New York. They’re always cooked in a wood-fire oven rather than coal, so that changes the chemistry of the bagel and makes them a little firmer. New York City bagels which became popularized once the many Eastern European Jews were settling here, first in the Lower East Side and then eventually Williamsburg once the Williamsburg Bridge was built, so it was easy for people to actually get to Williamsburg.
Laura: Would you say that the Lower East Side was the original New York City center of the bagel world?
Adrienne: Yeah, that was really the center of the Eastern European Jewish culture, because that was where a lot of different immigrant groups settled, so you’d find your people; when you came to this new place you would know like “Shelley from down the block where I grew up, her family lives in this place in New York City, so we’re going to go there.” It happened in Little Italy, it happened in Chinatown, that’s very often the case. So, the Lower East Side was once the most populated place on the planet because so many people were concentrated in one small area. Of course unless you were rich you couldn’t afford to live somewhere farther than where you could walk to work so once they built the Williamsburg Bridge, then a huge community of mostly the Jewish Eastern Europeans who lived in that neighborhood then spread because they were so close to the bridge. If you go down to the Lower East Side and did a tour of Jewish Lower East Side, you’re going to see, you’re right next to the Williamsburg Bridge, so it makes sense that a lot of people moved there. Now, Brooklyn is very much associated with the bagel and bagel history as well.
Laura: You mentioned that you would see a lot of people selling bagels on the street, like you would see a lot with bread; when do you start to see more shops like the way we know bagel shops today?
Adrienne: That started once you had the entrepreneurs, people who knew that there were other people in their communities seeking a taste of home. You’re all in this new place, you’re in a new world, you have to adjust to this new lifestyle, so a lot of people turned to food, whether that was smoked fish or a good pickle or a bagel, it was something that you wouldn’t get necessarily until you decided to open up a shop. You’d gather with friends and family and realize that it’s much easier to make these bagels especially because the New York City-style bagel, the one that we know, really does require a lot of equipment to make well. It’s not really an operation that you can do in your tiny tenement apartment, so you’d want to gather with other people who also know how to make bagels and maybe form a union, which is what they did eventually, and start opening such shops.
Laura: If I could make my own bagels at home…it would be dangerous.
Adrienne: If they were easy to do, they wouldn’t be so treasured.
Laura: I venture to say bagels are more synonymous with New York than pizza is, because people know pizza primarily as an Italian food, you can go to Italy and get pizza, it’s a different kind of pizza, but it will always be listed as an Italian food primarily. Bagels: I think New York City. Even though they originated in Eastern Europe, obviously. Was that just the population growing here and more shops being opened?
Adrienne: There’s a few factors that go into that. That makes a lot of sense and most people do think of bagels and New York going hand in hand. As I said, London had the Brick Lane District which then became a very Indian district. Montreal had a Jewish community. But a lot of those Eastern European Jews actually eventually moved down to the U.S. They didn’t have a long-lasting huge Jewish community the way that New York did. It became this hub where you could have all sorts of businesses. The diamond industry is predominantly run in this city by Hasidic and Orthodox Jews; there are small communities throughout the city that if you’re very religious, you can live in that world and still feel like you’re in your own religious center, which I think makes it really different from other places around the world. Then, the difference between pizza and bagels is that pizza was not made by a people who were ousted from their home whereas bagels were. So, they eventually started making bagels again in Poland and these Eastern European cities, but it was known as a New York/American treat, because it was no longer associated with these places because it found a new home here, because the communities of those people were here. Even today, you have many more Jewish New Yorkers than you do Jewish Polacks. Because they were pushed out of their homes. That would be why it really is a New York/American treat.
Laura: So, I wanted to ask you about these bagels you brought. Where are they from and why do you love them so much?
Adrienne: These bagels come from Bo’s Bagels, over in my neck of the woods in Harlem. We hadn’t really had a good bagel until Bo’s opened which was just about a year ago, in that part of the world.
Laura: Well, congratulations.
Adrienne: Thank you so much. Especially because I grew up on the Upper West Side which is a huge Jewish center or at least there was a big Jewish community when I was growing up, so we had lots of great bagels, several of which are now closed. Bo’s really incorporates their seasonings in their dough and the owners, a husband and wife team, Andrew is a native New Yorker who grew up in Queens, there’s plenty of really great bagels in Queens as well, again that Jewish community, but bagels for him meant home, comfort food, as they do for me. So, when he moved to Harlem and he and his wife could not find a good bagel place, he decided he would try to do it at home.
Laura: You gotta do what you gotta do.
Adrienne: Yes, much more adventurous than you or I. He, of course, took his bagels very seriously and decided to really learn the full process. You have to use a very high-gluten wheat flour to get a good bagel, that’s what gives it that nice chew. And you need a big kettle boiler in order to boil the bagels, that’s an important part so that they get that nice exterior. And you usually use barley water to cook that the bagels in, which gives it that little bit of sweetness and contributes to that texture. And then you get those bagel boards and stick them in the oven and they come out nice and fresh and beautiful and shiny and I think Bo’s bagels aren’t too big, I think they’re a good bagel size.
Laura: We’ve also talked about the fact that you should be able to appreciate the bagel and not just the spread or filling. What I appreciate about good bagel places is that I can order whatever I want, but if I can taste and appreciate the bagel without feeling overwhelmed by whatever it is that I order, the cream cheese, breakfast sandwich…then I think that’s the sign of a good bagel.
Adrienne: Anytime you have a sandwich of any kind, it’s all about that ratio. I’m going to open up a sandwich shop and call it “All About That Ratio, Baby.”
Laura: Yes. It’s so true though.
Adrienne: So, that’s important with a bagel. You don’t want it too big. For me, I don’t want it too small, I don’t want the cream cheese or the lox to take over. It’s all about balance.
Laura: That’s what it all boils down to…boils down to…right? Right?
Adrienne: Yeah, you should totally go on the road with that one.
Laura: I will. So, how did bagels become so popularized all throughout the U.S.?
Adrienne: Before the industrialization of bagels, they were really very particular about who could make the bagels. I mentioned a union, and there was actually a Bagel Bakers union and they had all these strict rules about how the bagels had to be made, and what constituted a bagel, and they were all handmade. That kind of got busted through when the invention of the bagel-making machine ruined it for them and it was actually the Lender family, of Lender’s Bagels fame that really took that and ran with it. So, they were able to make bagels using a machine so they didn’t need that very high intensive labor, then they could also package them once they cooked them in a very different way. This way is actually the method that you’re going to find in a lot of other places around the country where they essentially steam cook the bagels, so it gives them a very different finish, you don’t get the very shiny, glossy exterior, you get that lighter color, if you’ve ever had a Lender’s Bagel then you know exactly what I’m talking about, it’s much smaller because it doesn’t rise the same way. The steam cooking actually means its par-cooked and perfect for sitting on grocery shelves. That’s what happened; Lender’s then took their bagels into the supermarkets. At first, they were only appearing in Ethnic food sections, it was very exotic. But then once the Jewish culture started to become a little more familiar, thanks to TV programs especially: Seinfeld, other Jewish comedians coming into people’s homes and making them more comfortable with this culture that maybe they didn’t have in their own home town or they didn’t know so much about, so once they started normalizing this, then they were interested in trying these bagels and they could find them in their supermarket, so then it became something that you could get all over the place. You could get your frozen bagels and anybody could have them. Of course, they’re very different from a New York City bagel…
Laura: I was just going to ask you- a lot of what people say about what makes New York City Bagels different is the water. How does that relate to this broad commercialization of bagels?
Adrienne: Well, you’re going to boil your bagels in water and make the dough with water no matter what, so the water thing is certainly going to have an impact. But, a lot of scientists have deducted that it’s not the water. Or, at least, it’s not the water alone.
Laura: It’s a nice idea; very romantic New York City pride idea.
Adrienne: There is a company now based out of New Jersey that has come up with a way to recreate New York City water, there’s this machine and it’s just come out in the news that people are talking about this machine, that they’re essentially trying to sell to the rest of the world our water that we have so you can have our pizza and bagels. But, anytime you have a bread product the other factor is yeast. Yeast occurs naturally in the air around you. That’s why San Francisco sourdough is so treasured, because the yeast there is going to be very different from New York, for example. So, it’s a combination of both the air and the water. Now, if you’re going to be able to manufacture the air like you can in New York, then maybe they’ll be on to something. But, I think it’s a combination of those factors that make the New York City bagel what it is.
Man, this lady knows a whole lot about food history! Go take one of her tours now!