illustration by Tomasz Walenta

Willard Spiegelman’s Bagel Hell

A finicky Jew wanders Dallas in search of a heavenly bagel.

When I was a kid up North, Sunday meant bagels and lox. My father, like his father before him, would drive to the “appetizing” store for fish, cream cheese, and bagels. If your family wasn’t strictly kosher, you got all this stuff at a deli that also sold meat. If not, you observed the division between dairy and meat (milchik and fleischik). You bought your provisions from different vendors. In either case, standard brunch fare was entirely milchik. This was well before the days of fancy delicately smoked salmon. The food of choice was dangerously salty belly lox, now largely unavailable. It was joined by kippered (i.e., baked) salmon, unctuous whitefish, silken sable, and, if you had something to celebrate or money to burn, superb sturgeon, along with cream cheese, capers, and then something sweet like prune Danish or rugelach for dessert. Plus lots of water to keep you hydrated. You got bagels from the fish store or at a nearby bakery.

But in Dallas?

Here’s where we get down to the important stuff. You can find decent if not great smoked fish in Dallas (Deli News, Central Market). But bagels are a different story. The goyim here just don’t get it. They don’t know from bagels. Long ago, I stopped looking in Dallas for The Bread of My People. Just as I refuse to eat Tex-Mex north of the Red River, so I have resisted deli fare, for the most part, south of it. But, being a sanguine person, I live in hope. Perhaps I should try again, I told myself, in the 21st century.

So that we’re clear: a bagel is not a roll with a hole. The Lender family of New Haven got rich by slicing and then freezing bagels. Lender’s bagels are sorry substitutes. A bagel is not to be toasted except in emergencies. It should be eaten fresh. Eight hours out of the oven, it has the weight and consistency of a deadly weapon. But in those first seven hours, it is wonderful. It must have a modest crunch and a center that is full, warm, dense, glutinous, slightly sweet, and chewy. Its texture owes everything to the fact that a bagel is boiled before it is baked. It may have ingredients sprinkled on the outside (poppy or sesame seeds, onions, salt); it must not have stuff mixed into the dough. Sun-dried tomato, blueberry, cinnamon-raisin bagels—these do not please the purist. I am a proud purist.

Where does this leave me, bagel-bereft, in Dallas? Supermarkets? Feh. I set out one weekend with some co-religionists for a taste test. I don’t know whether I might have missed some contenders. Perhaps I did. (Helpful readers, please inform.) We sampled what we hoped would be manna from heaven from five sources.

The worst were from Whole Foods: dry, hard, and tasteless. Central Market’s were slightly better. The bagels from Einstein Brothers were gummy rather than chewy, and not crisp on the outside. (A bagel can be crisped at home by spraying it with water and sticking it in the oven for a few minutes.) Deli News imports its bagels—half-cooked—from H&H Bagels in Manhattan, the High Church of Bageldom. These had a tighter texture, were a little dry on the outside, and not too sweet. The bagels from Zinsky’s also come from elsewhere. Co-owner Jim Baron told me they import preformed dough, which they brush with an egg wash and then bake. Ours got high marks for moistness and chewiness, and a mild sweetness that came as a gentle aftertaste. And yet, when I bought some Zinsky’s bagels the following week, they were soft and mushy. Even spraying and heating them in the oven did not improve them. Still, Zinsky’s and Deli News came as close to authenticity as I could find.

It occurred to me that critical mass must play a role in bagel quality. At H&H, bagels are cooked all day long. You always get them warm. In Dallas, this seldom happens. They sit around. For a long time. The demand for them is not as great here as in New York.

Following my scholarly research, I went the DIY route. I called a foodie friend who comes from an old Dallas family (her parents had the first organic farm around here). She makes her own. “Teach me,” I pleaded. One Saturday afternoon, I headed to her house. We measured and sifted, combined gluten, white and whole wheat flours, with yeast, salt, sugar, and water. We made two loaves, with slight variations. We let them rise. We kneaded. We sliced the dough into 3-ounce sections, which we rolled and folded into circles. We let them sit. We sprinkled them with sesame seeds. Then we put them in simmering water for seven minutes and into the oven. We took them out; we let them sit until we could stand it no longer. We tasted. The results were blander than the store-bought bagels (probably we didn’t include enough salt or malt), but I figured that I could make improvements with more experience. My new career beckons. Perhaps.

In 2010, the world has grown smaller. Everything is available everywhere, all the time. Or so I had hoped. On the other hand, we are all buzzing about locavoring, eating stuff from near but not far. If Dallas cannot support a critical mass of bagelmaniacs, then we might as well forgo the product. That way, we can have more fun when we get to the Big Apple and are able to appreciate (and distinguish) the bagels and the lox. Till then, I’ll have a moist, soft tortilla instead.

Write to [email protected] .


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.