2011-02-03 / View From the Middle

Bagels: A Basic N.Y. Staple—With A “Schmear”

View From The Middle
Charles Rogers

I t was nice of Warren Bell of Bell Bagels to give away “a million” green bagels last week to celebrate and honor our Jets when they went off to Pittsburgh to play the Steelers. Nice. And (let’s face it) a good publicity gimmick.

Except, despite the green bagels, the Jets lost.

Hey, that’s beside the point now. Bell got some good publicity and, for giving it to him, he gave us at the office a big bag of bagels.

Which gives me a chance to talk about my favorite food: bagels.

Now, bagels are obviously a staple to most New Yorkers, especially if you are of the Jewish persuasion (you don’t HAVE to be, but it helps!). They’re usually lumped together with bialys and, well, lox and cream cheese (better known as “a schmear,” of course — and if you don’t know that, well…read on…). As for popularity, my own simple observation tells me that there is no item more popular in this city than the bagel. It can have sesame seeds, poppy seeds or, well, any other kind of seed you might have a fancy for, I guess — except maybe pumpkin.

I was introduced to the scrumptious delights years ’n years ago when growing up in Cincinnati. My family was one of very few Catholics living in a Jewish neighborhood and my youth was spent visiting my buddies frequently so I could feast on gefilte fish and butter (margarine) or cream cheese and bagels to my heart’s content — and then go home and eat Irish stew for dinner! If we check through the good old (new) Wikipedia, it’s easy to find the background of bagels and how they made their debut, for the most part, in this country around the turn of the 20th century when immigrants mostly from “the old country” arrived, including a nice mix of Italian, Irish and Jewish.

They say bagels came more to the fore in popularity, though, after the ’60s-or-so, although my childhood tells me different. But New Yorkers would find them mostly in Downtown Manhattan or in Midtown or, you guessed it, in the Catskills. I remember my wife and I and her family would travel Upstate to Loch Sheldrake just about every three months — and the primary reason was to wake up to THAT BREAKFAST, featuring prune juice for starters, eggs mixed with lox and, oh, yeah....bagels of every mouth-watering creation. I also remember ten or 15 years ago right here in Canarsie when Bell had his store on East 81st Street and Flatlands and on our way home after a Saturday night out we’d stop in and pick up a dozen bagels of every type so we’d have them with Sunday breakfast. Of course, we’d eat half of them Saturday night sitting in the car ’cause they’d still be soft and fresh from the oven. Ohhhh (I mean, Oyyyy), Heaven!

There are more yarns about those excursions Upstate and at home, but, since bagels is the topic here, I MUST tell a story on my younger sister, Alice.

Alice is a well-spoken, intelligent, good looking, classy Cincinnati girl who came to visit me a few years ago and, while sitting at dinner in my home, expressed a desire to have a real, native New York bagel. Sounds simple enough, I thought, and I asked if she would like it with lox and a schmear.

“A what?” she asked.

“You don’t know?” I answered. “Don’t ask!”

The following day I took her and a few other relatives to Katz’ Deli on Second Avenue in Manhattan. If you don’t know where, or what, Katz’ Deli is, you have no business reading this.

The setting couldn’t have been more perfect. The restaurant was packed. Typically, the waiters were tall and obnoxious. When our waiter came to the table, he scattered the huge menus at us like a deck of cards and said, stoically and without an iota of interest — but loudly, “WAD’LL YA HAVE?”

Well, Alice, slightly stunned from the booming voice, squared her shoulders and said, quite primly, “I’ll have a bagel and a smear and, uh, can I have some of that salmon on it?”



Well, maybe my sister will forgive me for not using the exact words that were said at Katz’ (literary license, y’know), but you get the idea.

You don’t have to ask why I went off on this bagel tangent, except to blame it on the goodness of Mr. Bell, who was kind enough to give us a bag of green bagels in the Courier office last week.

Unfortunately, we had to bring our own lox and, of course, a schmear.

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