March 24, 2010 § 8 Comments
Not having grown up in America, I never really knew about bagels. My very first one was in upstate New York in 2001, during the summer I’d turned seventeen. My mother was depositing me at a college program for high school students at Ithaca College, and we had breakfast at a friendly little cafe whose name I don’t remember, reveling in the fact that one could have one’s meal outdoors on the sidewalk. One of us ordered a bagel with bacon, egg and cheese, named at this cafe after a lady: The Allison. It was your perfectly dependable, greasy, delicious breakfast bagel sandwich, with thick runny yolk and slightly tangy, orange cheddar cheese — a specialty, though I did not know at the time, of upstate New York. And though afterwards, we did and do recall The Allison with fondness, we didn’t realize the part of the actual bagel in our bafflingly amazing, locally-sourced, homemade, probably organic breakfast.
In 2002, I moved to college in Boston, and in 2003, I moved off-campus to live with in Brookline/Brighton. I didn’t grasp the momentousness at the time, but I had the distinct, never-to-be-repeated privilege of living a pajama-wearing-walk distance from a Whole Foods. No longer in the social bustle of campus and no longer especially close to my roommates, I would wake up, feeling terribly lonely and very zen at the same time, and in an effort to pass the morning, go in my light blue and navy plaid pajamas to Whole Foods, and feel greedy looking at their display of baked goods, particularly the bin after glass bin of golden Iggy’s Bagels, with the light practically glinting off their sesame seeds–looking not at all like the garbage bags full of day-old bagels and donuts from Dunkin Donuts we had been eating on Freshman year film shoots. It was an unprecedented revolution for me, this business of going to a grocery store for nothing but a coffee and a bagel, to bring it back home, eat it quietly over the morning paper, and feel satisfied. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was at this point I became aware of wanting to write poems, though I was a film major at the time.
I’m trying to remember why, since they are no longer my bagel of choice, I would buy the beautiful multiseed ones with those lovely brown seeds I’ve only just realized were flax and eat them sliced and toasted with giant pats of butter. I think it had to do with a lady I was squirmy about, who lived in Jamaica Plain, a few neighborhoods over, within walking distance of a Harvest Coop or maybe the City Feed on Centre Street. Mornings after sleepovers at her house (how the kitchen is returning to me now — the Hindu-god themed calendar belonging to her yoga enthusiast roommate, the cat named Little Man), she’d go to the store and return with the newspaper and multiseed bagels to be had with butter, and that’s where I acquired the pieces to make a solitary ritual of my own.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City, of course, that I acquired the zeal of a convert. The bagel that stands out as the best of my life was at Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side. My roommate Rajeev and I woke up early to spend the day at Flushing Meadows and watch the 2007 US Open for the very first time. Imagine my shock when, standing in line, I found the busy staff behind the counter speaking to each other in Thai, the language of my adopted homeland. Between the US Open, the enormous displays of bagels, the crowds of happy people, and the Thais, by the time I got to the counter to speak to them, I was ecstatic. And then I ate my bagel. It was an everything with scallion cream cheese.
And while that might be the last big, explosive bagel story I remember, the love affair endured, turning quiet and fierce when I moved to Park Slope in 2009 with my partner at the time, three blocks away from the crassly-named Bagel World, by no means the best place in the city, but nevertheless the sort of place where with there’s a line out the door on weekend mornings, comprising of Park Slope papas and strollers, abuelitas and toddlers, and behind the counter, frenetic Mexican guys who sweetly call you “mami” and charmingly mess up your order sometimes. Ella and I would get an everything with sausage egg and cheese, conveniently sliced down the middle, and though it was mostly the over-salted, over-spiced, heart-attack-on-a-plate sausage one could taste, there’s something to be said for taking it home, pulling it out of the aluminum foil and parchment paper, and splitting it over tv shows on the laptop. They weren’t the best bagels, but they were the most blissful.
Which brings me to now, back in Bangkok against my will, trying to find a bit of bliss. Heartbroken and hence especially susceptible to being offended by the rolls-with-holes variety at Au Bon Pain and the dry, overpriced cottonballs at Villa Supermarket, I resorted to making my own, from a recipe my friend Cee Webster gave me and which can be found here. They’re shockingly easy, despite the quintessential boiling step, and you should definitely try them at home. I’ve become quite attached to making them on Saturday mornings, though inevitably it gets late in the morning and the family home becomes full of many other waking people.
Still, I’m wresting some space in a kitchen where I’m not the primary cook, not by a longshot. I’m rebuilding Brooklyn, bagel by bagel.