No one in Montreal has ever said, “Bring me back a New York-style bagel.” A Montreal bagel is chewy, doughy, and warm. A New York bagel is a utility—a conveyance for some other flavor or taste sensation—and it has no dignity.
Photo via Flickr user Steel Wool
Never in my life did I expect to have to speak so forthrightly on a subject so simple, so immediate, so self-evident. I mean, we're talking about bagels here. Yes, New York has Mickey Mantle and the Empire State Building and there's good jazz and lots of people there. But, when it comes to the bagel, you've simply got to let it go.
You've no place here, New York. Your bagels are shit.
Your bagels are, more to the point, not bagels. A real bagel—that is, a Montreal bagel—is something quiet and simple, honest and pure. It's light, and it's small, and it comes in poppy or sesame, and you can get it at 4 AM, piping hot—too hot for your hands—from an oven that burns wood. Our bagels are made with love by hand, each one beat up, and cut up, and rolled up, and dipped in, and slid in, and then turned about, and then brought back out, and then gently plopped into a little holding pen and then eaten, immediately, hot.
And outside it's wintry cold, -30°C cold. New Yorkers wouldn't understand.
On Rue Saint-Viateur, in the quiet and leafy Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal, sits St-Viateur Bagel, in the same place since 1957. With the same postwar Polish recipe, they couldn't make the bagels fast enough, and so another oven opened, just one block down, still making only round pieces of lump. Lovely pieces of lump.
If you walk into St-Viateur, the people will greet you warmly and honestly. The same guys have been working the dough for 25 to 30 years. Even the current owner started out there, as a 15-year-old, making bagels over a summer. "I grew up in the area," says the man behind the counter. "My father owned the butcher shop just across the street."When you get back into town after a long trip, they will ask you where've you been and offer you a little tuque, a smile, and another extra bagel. You will walk away eating the first bagel.
A bagel doesn't have to be big; it doesn't have to be brash. If only you knew better, you would offer up the bagel naked and whole. Seven kinds of low-cal strawberry spread have no place in the world. Egg-garlic-whole-wheat-everything-cinnamon bagels aren't bagels.
The thing is, you have no dignity, New York. Bagels in your city are seen as a utility. They're wrapped up and put in briefcases or lunch boxes for later. If you're forced to a make a decision at a counter between a bagel or slice of cake or a roll, then what you have before you is not a bagel.
"Those aren't our good bagels," you might say. But the very fact that you do have those bagels demonstrates that you don't understand. If you accept anything less than the ideal—at every corner deli, no less, cold and hard and suffocated in plastic, with bacon and egg sitting there sadly in-between its pre-sliced halves—you put forward a total lack of aesthetic appreciation for all of the world to see.
Your bagels are, as a chef friend said to me, "a fucking loaf of bread." A bagel shouldn't ruin your day, have to be shared among friends, or, wholly denigrated, served as a conveyance for some other flavor or taste sensation. (Certainly, the salt beef beigel in London's Brick Lane is not a bagel alone, though the immediate salt beef and bagel are, in truth, two mutually constitutive moments of a single essential whole: the salt beef beigel.)
No one in Montreal has ever said, "Bring me back a New York-style bagel." But don't they sell "Montreal-style" bagels in New York? Didn't some guy drive down to Brooklyn from Montreal every single Friday—for two years—with hundreds of dozens of bagels in back, only to sell out each Saturday?
From what I've heard and read, your city's apparently come some ways with the bagel, on account of an entrepreneurial Montreal expat, but don't ruin things. No one needs the faux ethos of old-world-tradition-meets-modern-locavore-sustainability. Smoked trout bagel sandwiches are a Frankenstein and needn't be. There is no call for bagel "reinvention." Yours will only ever be a simulacrum.
A Montreal bagel is chewy, doughy, and warm, with a nice outside crunch and a bit of sweetness. It's just eggs, malt, yeast, oil, sugar, flour, a dip in the honey water, and then some white or black seeds, or sometimes none. You can see it all done, right before your eyes, with the bags of flour on the floor right in front of you.
It used to be the case, before certain advances and technologies and whatnot, that when you asked someone, "What is a meter?" they would point to a length of rod because that was the measure. Similarly, the Montreal bagel—from St-Viateur Bagel, with its water, its wood, its ovens, and its hands—is the bagel. Not to be replicated or reimagined or duplicated, it simply is.
To claim New York's bagel is better is literal nonsense.