Writing about bagels & lox was not an immediate idea. I was thinking about salmon really, and have lots to talk about there. Then I remembered how the arrival at the perfect bagel & lox experience is not automatic, nor obvious. I arrived at it only through the guidance of others, though living near great bagel shops and markets helped too.
Even though I come from a secular Jewish household, family gatherings – from my memory at least – did not include the ubiquitous bagel & lox platter. Oh I’m sure there was lots of lox, and white fish, but I suppose as a young person with typical palate limitations I was attracted only to the lox-hidden-in-the-cream-cheese spread. And no complaints there. This bagel preparation was delightful and the end of the road for me at the time. Real lox was just too icky.
Fast forwarding... At some point in my 20’s I worked for 9 months at a small city ad agency run by a father and son. The son was a lovely person, as well as one of Gourmet magazine’s top eligible New York City bachelors at the time. This made going to work fun. Unfortunately the father was a very mean person, a nouveau rich sort who took all his former life persecutions out on the rest of us, or maybe just me.
One day it was near holiday time and, regarding our office celebration, the father wanted to do it right. A bunch of us got in the father’s town car, with the father, to go out and find some food to bring back to the office. Our office was near the U.N. building, around 46th St. & 1st Ave., yet the driver took us all the way across and up to the upper west side. Before we knew it we were pulling up right outside of Zabar’s.
Zabar’s is a famous New York City institution, beloved by Woody Allen (who shot a scene from “Manhattan” there) and many other NY Jews and food afficionadoes for their massive array of bagel accoutrements. I say they specialize in bagel accoutrements, rather than bagels, because less than a half block away is a store called H&H Bagels, the city's most famous bagel shop. (They ship bagels overnight, btw, for about $50). People always go to both stores.
So far this was an unexpectedly adventurous field trip, to a famous gourmet store during work hours with the nice boss’s nasty father. When we got to the lox counter, Lauren Bacall (or Kathleen Turner) was ordering something and that was cool.
Then the father, who’s normal personae had suddenly morphed to that of giggly kitten, put some cash in my hand and said “Go get some lox, for 10 people.” I said, “Ok.” This sounded easy enough, but in the moments that followed the command I sidled up to the lox counter and there was a heck of a lot of lox. My original plan had been to order “lox,” and my new plan was to eavesdrop on Lauren Bacall’s (or Kathleen Turner’s) order, since her loud, specific commands to the lox man seemed pretty good. But then the father called out to me among the bustle “Get the belly lox! Don’t forget! Belly lox!” And when I said that to the lox man, it worked!
Back at the ranch we laid out the spread and I was instantly converted to the belly lox. This type of lox – heretofore unknown to me -- was incredible, soft, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth and didn’t have that fishy thick taste I'd gotten to know a few times from tasting regular lox cuts. To this day I can say that belly lox is the one nice thing that man ever did for me.
Now there were bagels in my life before the days of belly lox. In the early 90’s I was at a NY job that blessed the workers with Friday morning bagels and cream cheese. The bagels were large and fresh and came from a place called Ess-a-Bagel. (These remain my favorite brand, even more so than H&H.) Every Friday I’d take an everything bagel, force on some cold salted butter, then spread on the cream cheese. As years passed I could actually alter my weight via whether or not I partook in bagel day.
Eventually I learned my favorite way to eat a bagel was a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. I think a lot of people enjoy this combo. You’ve got your bagel with all those savory seasonings baked in – minced garlic and onions, sesame and poppy seeds, paired with the fresh green onions in the cream cheese. It’s perfection.
One morning during rush time, I ordered my favorite in the typical fashion, “Toasted everything with scallion,” at a new deli, and all was well until the counter guy asked me, “You want jelly too?” This stopped me in my non-caffeinated-coma tracks. My mind raced… I’m sorry, what about my order did you not understand. Savory bagel with savory spread. Why the F*** are you asking me about JELLY. I couldn’t have looked more squinty-eyed incredulous when I replied, “No!!” Listen, sweet cheap grape jelly + salty savory perfection isn't a thought that should ever be. Really, it’s like asking if you want grape jelly squirted on your French onion soup, or your strip steak, or...anything! It's wrong. But guess what, he squirted on the jelly when I wasn’t looking. At the office I discovered the treason, walked very pissed off all the way back to the deli for a re-do and never went there again, because the sanctity of a person's bagel preparation should never be tampered with, especially not in New York.
It was also in the mid-90’s that I received the best lesson on how to prepare a bagel, from my friend Matthew. He took such pride in this, he really taught me the glories of the experience in a way I did not know before.
The demonstration began one morning in our apartment, with fresh H&H’s in hand. We had brewed coffee in mugs (a very important go-with ;), and Matthew systematically began the bagel-prepping ritual while explaining it to me, since he was sincerely surprised that another Jew from Jersey didn’t have this knowledge inborn. Note: It’s been a few years and I can’t say Matthew said these exact words, but it is how I remember it. He said:
“First you take the bagel and you cut it in half with a big, serrated knife. Take the bottom half and put on the cream cheese. Not too much! Slice up a big beefsteak tomato. Make sure it’s ripe. The slices should be thick! Place a nice thick tomato slice over the cream cheese. Then take a red onion. Slice that up. Put a big onion ring or two over the tomato, just like that. Sprinkle on some salt, then some pepper. Top that with the other half of the bagel. Mmmmm, now look at that! And THAT’S how you make a BAGEL!”
It was crunchy, perfect deliciousness! I'll always remember that bagel. Hey Matt, maybe you can make me another one of those in December! :)
Until we eat again,