Alright, so I know it’s a bit weird to blog about one of Judaism’s most famous leavened breads during Passover (which, for all the non-jews out there, is a holiday where you abstain from leavened bread), but I’m not the best Jew, so this isn’t entirely out of character.
There are a few origin stories for the bagel. One, a myth that has since been debunked, tells the tale of a baker in Vienna in 1683, who created a bread shaped like a stirrup, in honor of King John III Sobieski of Poland, who prevented the Turks from taking over the city. This story even claims that the word bagel comes from the German word for stirrup, bugel. Though this story held sway for many years, we now know that it is totally false, since the Yiddish word beygl can be found in a 1610 document of rules for a Jewish community in Krakow. The rules state that bagels were to be given to women in childbirth as a gift. It’s believed that the bagel actually originated in South Germany, where it was named beugel, or bracelet. It then moved into Poland, where, some sources say, it was used as an alternative to the obwarzanek, a very similar bread, that was associated with Lent. Whether or not this is true, the bagel has quite a history in Poland. In the shtetls, hawkers sold bagels out of baskets or on long sticks, and were required to have a license. Even the illegal selling of bagels occurred, mostly by children with widowed mothers, though if they were caught, the police would often beat them and take away their goods.
However the bagel originated, with the diaspora of the Jews, it spread to Western Europe and the east coast of America, where it found a stronghold. Many Jews found employment selling bagels in their new cities. These days, the bagel is one of the more well known Jewish foods, and is intensely associated with New York. In fact, New Yorkers claim that they actually make the very best bagels, thanks to the high quality of the water. They even call their plain bagels “water bagels.” Another variety of bagels is the Montreal bagel, which is made with malt and is blanched in water with honey.
Bagels, in addition to being a famed Jew-food, also hold a lot of significance in Jewish culture. The shape of bagels symbolizes the circle of life; the loop of a bagel has no beginning and no end. Even more, they were considered to be a good luck token and it was thought they could fend off the evil eye. For this reason, it has held meaning in ceremonies that are life cycle events, like circumcisions, during childbirth (as mentioned above), and funerals. And as much of Jewish humor revolves around food, you can bet there are bagel jokes…namely “a bagel is a donut with rigor mortis.”
But really, while all of this bagel history is interesting, what is more interesting is how delicious they are. Bagels are made from an enriched dough with flour, water and yeast, though these days many people add eggs as well. The dough is then rolled out and shaped into the familiar rings, and are left to rise briefly. In order to get the fantastic crusty outside with the delightfully chewy center, the dough rings are blanched quickly in boiling water, and, after being drained, are then baked to bagel-y perfection. Of course, bagels don’t retain their freshness for very long, which is where that rigor mortis joke comes in!
But what really makes bagels so great are their ability to make delicious sandwiches. While much of bagel cuisine revolves around cream cheese and smoked salmon, the bagel is truly a versatile bread. Really, you could throw anything between a halved bagel, and chances are, it’d be awesome. Even better, is that the bagel is a very sturdy bread, so you can easily make open face sandwiches! Of the photos above, the sandwich ones are from Tompkins Square Bagels in New York City, which was around the corner from where my brother used to live, and was a place that necessitated at least two visits per trip to New York. The first open face bagel is a homemade sandwich, with lox from Zabar’s, and the second two are from The Wood in Los Angeles, a cute restaurant, and this, in my opinion, is the star of their menu.
But however you eat your bagel, (or for that matter, whether you’re a Jew or not!), bagels are definitely a part of both the sandwich and the breakfast culture of America. You can get a bagel with cream cheese at almost any grab and go breakfast place, and even many lunch places: Dunkin Donuts will put any of their sandwiches on a bagel for you. And these days, you can get just about any flavor of bagel you want, from plain to blueberry, to pumpernickel. Which really just gives you more options for your sandwiches.
Now before I begin, I want to note that it has been quite some time since I’ve posted. Sorry.
Secondly, and much more pertinent to this post, I am not a pizza expert. On the other hand, I very much know what exactly I like and don’t like when it comes to pizza. Quite honestly, that deep-dish, thick crust stuff just doesn’t do it for me. That is why I always make sure to eat pizza as much as I can when in New York.
I hope that by now, I won’t have to argue too strongly as to why pizza fits into the sandwich category. It very much resembles an open-face sandwich and, furthermore, is most often eaten with your hands (unless of course, you are one of THOSE people who eat their pizza with a fork and knife, and probably pat off all the grease as well).
What is really interesting about pizza, in my opinion, is how many different cultures have laid claim to it. Its origins in Naples make it inherently Italian, yet America has adopted it into its food culture as well. Going further, Chicago has made the pizza its own, as has New York, and any college student could tell you that pizza is one of their most eaten foods. For me, this is the beauty of food — its universality allows all sorts of people to eat the same food while meaning very different things to each person.
Following my stay in Connecticut, I took a trip to the Big Apple, mostly to visit my little brother, a freshman at NYU, and my best friend Alex. Also important was seeing Will, a good friend from college and a New Yorker through and through. Therefore, I knew Will would be imperative to finding a great sandwich in New York.
He took me to Num Pang, a hole in the wall off Union Square, that serves Cambodian-style sandwiches. The pork sandwich is their best seller, and consistently sells out early in the day, which was the case on my visit. Will suggested the catfish sandwich, and if the pork really is better, it must be one hell of a sandwich. Ordering takes place on the sidewalk through a small window in the restaurant, and just behind the guy taking your order, you can see the entire kitchen.
The sandwich itself was complex in all the right ways. The catfish was cooked perfectly, flaky and spicy. For those of you who have been following along, you know that the presence of cucumbers on the sandwich always scores major points with me. The chili mayo accentuated the peppercorn aspect of the catfish, while the sweet soy sauce complemented the kick provided by the other ingredients. I’ve never seen cilantro used the way it is in this sandwich: a handful of it takes up the role usually held by lettuce. One of the best parts of this sandwich for me however, is the tagline on the menu:
Our sandwiches were created to enjoy as they are so PLEASE, NO MODIFICATIONS.
These are the kind of sandwich purists I like.