If you come to New York, you will eventually find yourself with a bagel-in-hand. This is an inevitability because 1) New York is absolutely full of bagel shops and delis that sell bagels and bakeries professing to bake bagels that actually bake round bread and 2) once you meet someone who has lived in New York for a time, he (it’s usually a he-Yorker who practices this kind of knowingly perverse behavior) will force you to eat bagels until you go diabetic. Once you are sufficiently bagel-in-hand, a question of surprising significance arises: what should you put on a bagel?
Note: the following advice adheres to no particular tradition or conventional wisdom. Instead, I instruct you in the art of bagel eatery, and more specifically, bagel topping consumption, with the authority of only my personal experiences. Proceed with caution to avoid the japes of fat crotchety locals wearing sweaters (in July) and berets and sitting on park benches scrutinizing your every bagel eating move.
Note 2: Ex-New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton recently bemoaned the death of “authentic” bagels. H & H’s glory hole shut-up for good this June—but, in my traitorous opinion, H & H produced an inferior product and passed it off as a standard; it survived on the grace of its reputation among tourists and naive 85th streeters—a highly specific class of New Yorker intent on paying 81st Street prices for all foodstuffs. I, at one innocent time in my pubescent past, looked forward to H & H visitations. In my aged 20 years (which always counts for a lot in vinegar, sometimes in wine, rarely in baseball cards), I have become wiser to the ways of the bagel. Now, I buy my batches at Absolute Bagel, an institution that Sheraton would likely frown upon, considering the “enormous size” of their bagels—greater than 3.5 inches in diameter. H & H measured 4.5 inches. Evidently, this impairs the crust-to-interior-ratio. When it comes to bagels, size really does matter. But just grab an Absolute Bagel hot from the oven—chewy and crunchy and blistered golden on the out, all gossamer wads of dough within—and it seems obvious that a good bagel is a good bagel and no amount of tape measuring satisfactorily quantifies the goodness of a baked good.
The first, and only legitimate, way to eat a bagel is to walk outside the shop, bagel concealed in a brown paper bag, and eat the bagel standing on the sidewalk. After breakfasting with strangers making their way to the nearest subway station bagel-in-hand too, you enter a intimate comaraderie with such busy and important New Yorkers. $1—the deli bagel’s going market price—is not a high price to pay for membership. Ordering a bagel toasted with butter says: “I can’t handle eating a pound of pure carbohydrates at 7 am—I need more fat.” Ordering a bagel with cream cheese says: “I can’t. . .—I need much, much more fat.” Ordering a bagel with lox says: “I can’t. . .—I need much, much more fat and a little protein and my own portable salt lick.” Real men eat raw bagels.
If you come to New York, and if you stay long enough, you will eventually find yourself in the house of ill repute known as Barney Greengrass. This is a house of ill repute because it is not Russ & Daughters, and because their babka invariably tastes stale, and because it is socially unacceptable to order a raw bagel and eat it in the presence of such greatness as Alec Baldwin. Regardless, I adore Barney Greengrass for its vinyl seats and self-consciously linoleumed interior and the downright rude service. (The last time I visited I ordered without looking at the menu, drank copious quantities of black coffee, scowled at tourists, kept my Yankee cap on indoors, and wore a holey Katz’s t-shirt faded to the point of illegibility. I finally received a decent waiter and a goodbye smile.) Get a bialy, toasted, with cream cheese and pastrami lox, tomato, and onion. It’s like butter. Except a toasted bialy with cream cheese, pastrami lox, tomato, and onion. Like I said. Like butter.
If you come to New York, and if you stay a sufficiently long period, long enough to gain “regular” status at neighborhood restaurants and to complain about subway fare price hikes and to make enough money to live on 85th Street (and then pay 81st Street prices everywhere, everywhere) or to make enough rich friends to invite you to 85th Street frequently, you will eventually find yourself in what we “rubes” call a “fancy restaurant.” Since you have lived in New York for some time, you will have gained a familiarity with the mores of bagels (and other Jewish pseudo-breads) and smoked fish. When perusing a “fancy restaurant’s” intimidating menu, look first for smoked fish—with such a dish, you will, of course, know how to behave. At The Modern, take note of extraneous silverware, obsequious napkin-folding, and a “parade” of “amuse bouches” that “will have your palate exploding in rapturous flavor,” or whatever those crazy bloggers are saying these days. Examine the menu with dignity: what is that under “two,” a smoked fish dish? Sturgeon and sauerkraut tart, American caviar mousseline, and applewood smoke. Beneath a ceramic cloche, a Bob Marley concert awaits: a delightful haze (like woodsmoke, Vermont mornings, white chickens, a stone wall, a rainy red wheelbarrow—poetry) and a hot pocket. It’s a 1.7 inch diameter pastry round layered with better-than-ballpark kraut, supple sturgeon, and an airy caviar cream. Pick the popper up and take a bite. Now that H & H closed, this amounts to (midnight) breakfast for 85th streeters. After finishing it, your server presents you with a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye (wrong food, wrong city). Finally, you know what it means to live in New York. Rush off to try Murray’s Sturgeon Shop at 89th Street, four blocks in the wrong direction, but heck (heck, hell), there’s nothing wrong with slumming it when you feel the need to put something on a bagel, which always means things are going downhill indeed.