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[Ed. Note: We are delighted to welcome Master Essayist and Chef Extraordinaire, the One, the Only, B's Daddy-o, Ol' Popster himself, Marty Hykin!]
I am asked to provide some perspective on the history and traditions surrounding bagels and lox, at least in the context of the times and places in my life.
So, for a start, the times and places which were formative in my ideas and feelings about bagels are the 1940’s in the Bronx – which is the only part of New York City located upon the mainland of North America.
I cannot speak with authority on how Bagel-and-Lox things were done elsewhere in New York, much less in such far-off places as Montreal. There were endless variations from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, region to region, depending upon where the inhabitants originated and, of course, upon religious, political and economic status. each of these factors played subtly upon details of diet and attitudes towards food and all other details of life. Ethnic clusters were very well defined from street to street, each with its own take on comme il faut. My immediate neighbourhood was composed mainly of relatively secular, left-wing, working class Jews of “Eastern European” origin, meaning Poles and Russians for the most part. This was a far different cultural world than, say, German Jews or Orthodox Hassidic Jews.
Let’s start with bagels. There were two basic types available in my neighbourhood.
The first was the plain bagel. Most readers will be familiar with the plain bagel but I should specify that its essential qualities were as follows; It was quite firm and chewy with a slightly glazed surface. There were a very few possible variations permitted. It might have poppy seeds or some chopped onions on the surface but that was it. I never saw any other variations such as what is available today. No whole wheat, no sesame seeds, no multigrains, raisins or cinnamon or any other of the adulterants and abominations which infest today’s offerings. (Blueberries!) It is not that those ingredients are not fine things, in their proper places, but they are not harmonious with authentic bagel-ness.
I am not closely familiar with the details of bagel-making, but I understand the glazed surface of the authentic bagel was created by a diluted egg-white wash and that the bagels were briefly boiled in water before being baked. However it was done, the outer surface was a tough, almost leathery membrane. It served to protect the dense, chewy interior, keeping it safe and edible for many days. So, unlike other breads; kaiser rolls or challah, for example, being fresh-from-the-oven was not a required attribute of a bagel, It should be as good on a Thursday as it had been last Sunday.
Today, in addition to the bizarre added ingredients, there has been a tendency to puff bagels up to a much larger size, even to eliminate the glazed surface. Many such phony bagels have a soft, almost cake-y texture which offers very little beneficial exercise to teeth and jaw muscles, (of which more later.) It has become food for people who are not willing to work for their pleasures. The carefully crafted qualities of the authentic bagel are lost so that these modern versions are simply rather ordinary bread that has been formed into a peculiar shape for which no reason is apparent. A newcomer to the world of the modern bagel would wonder, “What’s so special about this?” and would conclude that affection for bagels is some kind of pointless ethnic nostalgia.
Before going on to describe how a bagel should be eaten I should mention the second kind of bagel. This is almost by way of a memoriam as I haven’t seen a good one of these for years, even in NY. I am talking about the Bialystok bagel which, originated in Bialystok, Poland. We knew them simply as “Bialys” (bee-YAH-lees). These were about the same size as a plain bagel but differed in three important ways. First, there was no hole in the center. The center was depressed and thin, as though someone might have tried to stick his thumb through the middle but didn’t quite make it. Second, the surface was not glazed but was of a dry, matte texture. Often it was dusted with plain dry flour. Third, the interior was not so dense and uniform as a plain bagel. There were both small and quite large bubbles in the dough. Despite these differences, the Bialy still retained a certain toughness, an elastic chewiness. They had some qualities in common with English muffins or the outer ring of a really good, thick pizza crust, but definitely tougher and chewier. Bialys came plain or sometimes with chopped onions baked upon their surface.
For the sake of truth I should mention that I have a dim memory of a third type – something called an “egg bagel.” These were plain bagels with egg added to the recipe, possibly even sugar, resulting in a yellower, sweeter, softer dough. Even in my childhood, I dismissed these as misguided attempts to “improve” on something which had long-since settled into a state of perfection. The net effect was like putting pink satin bows on gumboots. Forget these jumped-up travesties.
How to slice bagels.
The first problem in preparing to eat a bagel is learning to slice it. It needs to be sliced in half to expose the inner surface upon which butter or cream cheese can be spread. Because all its surfaces are convexly rounded and slick, and because it is so tough, it is relatively tricky to master the slicing technique. This is especially true if you have lived your life slicing breads with nice, stable, flat bottoms and soft textures. When – approximately in the 1970′s – bagels suddenly became fashionable among inexperienced non-Jews, there soon followed a great increase in visits to hospital emergency rooms by people who had suffered serious bagel-slicing injuries. They had blithely embarked upon the task with no mentoring or cultural memory to guide them.
Here’s how to do it (for right-handers). Stand bagel on edge on a cutting board. Form an arch, an inverted “U” with left hand and grasp upper portion of the bagel from above between fingers on one side and thumb on the other side. Do not place thumb or fingers low enough to intrude into the center hole. This will leave enough space under the arch to insert a serrated knife so its edge rests upon the upper edge of the bagel. Then slice vertically downwards, taking care to prevent the bagel from toppling to one side or the other. This is quick, easy, and safe. Do not try to slice bagels by holding them flat on a cutting board and slicing horizontally, parallel to the surface of the cutting board. There are a great variety of ways that technique can go badly wrong.
In general I would say that a bagel, once sliced, is now ready to eat. I know it has become common, even de rigeur in some circles, to toast bagels but I would say this distances one from the authentic bagel experience. It borders upon the frou-frou. Toasting does move the bagel’s taste and texture some distance towards the “fresh-baked” qualities which are desirable in other breads, but this diminishes the satisfaction and benefits which are derived from the exertions necessary to eat a bagel au naturel. It is not going too far to assert that this mano-a-mano struggle with the bagel provides a spiritual nourishment in addition to bodily nourishment. In practical terms, it strengthens jaw muscles and teeth, and makes a very meager meal last longer – which is a blessing to a poor person who doesn’t necessarily have the option of asking for seconds.
But toast if you will.
What to put on a bagel.
It doesn’t take much to elevate the plain bagel to a great treat. One of my favourites is a bit of butter and a sprinkle of coarse salt. Another treat is to put on a thin smear of rendered chicken fat and rub the bagel surface with the cut end of a garlic clove.
Another level up, of course, is a “schmear” of cream cheese and finally, the ne plus ultra, bagel with cream cheese and lox.
Chapter Two – Lox
What is a bagel without lox? Well, as you have read, in my opinion it is very fine indeed and a lot cheaper too. But with the addition of lox and some other substances it becomes a delicious luxury.
Lox is raw salmon which has been cured (preserved) in various ways depending on ones resources and ethnic or regional traditions. I have to say that I am no expert on lox but I can pass along to you the little knowledge I have. The basic cure is, of course, salt. In addition to salt some recipes might include sugar, pepper, dill weed and smoking over a slow wood fire. The variations are endless. Here on the West coast I think Alder is the wood commonly used for smoking. I don’t know what was used where I grew up in New York. The lox can be smoked cool or hot, resulting in different textures and flavours.
When I was young all the lox available in my world was cold-smoked. The received wisdom was that the very best lox was what we called “Novy.” Novy came from Nova Scotia and it was distinguished by being very delicately flavoured – not nearly as salty or smoky as common lox. If nothing else, this guaranteed that Novy was, perforce, made from the very freshest fish in best condition. Any deficiencies in quality could not be hidden by massive over-salting.
Common lox compares to Novy as cheap muscatel does to fine dry champagne, as bologna does to Parma ham. Ordering Novy at the deli counter indicated not only that you were prosperous, but that you were a person of refinement.
How to order lox at the deli counter – a lost art.
In my time lox did not come as it does today, pre-sliced and encased in tough plastic envelopes. Just as chicken in those days came from birds with feathers, feet and other auxiliary parts, lox came from large objects which were recognizeable as actual fish.
The fish, cut lengthwise into large filets, lay skin-side-down upon wooden cutting boards behind the counter. Between you, the purchaser, and the object of your desire, the lox, stood a person who might appear in various aspects; as gentle benefactor or gruff guardian, skilled surgeon or crude butcher, honest workman or conniving cheat. He was always well-armed with a knife of formidable dimensions. His skill and cooperation were required for a satisfactory outcome. After specifying to him that such and such a quantity of either plebeian “lox” or noble “Novy” was wanted, there was one further instruction required, but not just yet. Timing was everything. One must wait until he had turned and addressed the chosen carcass and stood with knife poised to make the first slice. It was at this moment that one must add “Cut from the belly!” I learned this by observing the ritual and had no idea at the time whether lox cut “from the belly” was any better than that cut from the tail end, but it was clear that the purpose of this increpation was to put your humble servant on notice that he was being watched by a person who knew what was what.
This, in turn, obligated one to watch him work and it was a rewarding experience. The slices were cut not straight downwards towards the wooden surface, but at a very shallow angle, just above horizontal. It was always a minor miracle in my eyes to see how these magicians worked. From a filet only an inch or so thick they could produce slice after perfect, uniformly thin slice, each as much as 4 inches wide.
It was appropriate that there was such high art involved in providing the lox. The price, even of the standard plain “lox” was certainly high and the price of Novy was stratospheric, at least to my family. It was a rare luxury, reserved for special weekend breakfasts.
How we ate lox and bagels in my family was simple enough. Cream cheese was spread on the cut surface of a bagel and then thin slices of lox were laid on the cream cheese, never overlapping each other and not quite covering all the cheese. The precious fish must be parsimoniously stretched to best advantage. One employed the back of a fork, gently pressing the tines down through the soft flesh to slightly mash the lox into the cream cheese, the better to spread its goodness across the whole expanse so that no bite would be deprived of its wonderful flavour.
When I was sixteen years old I got a job as “Arts and Crafts” counselor at a childrens’ summer camp. The clientele were all from relatively well-to-do families and it was there I first saw lox in an abundance almost unimaginable to me. Sunday mornings saw great platters of the stuff served out, almost swimming in its oily pink fat, to be piled high upon bagels covered with thickly spread cream cheese and garnished with slices of tomatoes and raw sweet onions. It seemed almost sinful to me, but I did not hold back from taking full advantage of what was offered.
Even after this experience, I could not escape my early training. After I married I recall a time when I had brought some bagels and lox home for us. I was shocked by the profligacy with which wife and son layered slice after slice of lox upon their bagels. “You don’t do that with lox,” I protested. “You can’t treat it like you’re making a ham sandwich!” They had no idea what I was talking about. I had to struggle to govern my emotions.
Another favourite way to eat lox.
In a cast iron pan melt a generous dollop of butter. As the butter browns add finely diced onion and lox cut into smallish pieces. Stir and saute over medium-high heat until onions are slightly caramelized and the lox bits are beginning to brown around their edges. Then dump in some scrambled eggs and cook to your taste. Yum!
Speaking of scrambling – I must append a few necessary words regarding the downfall of civilization. People newly scrambling up out of the ghetto and trendoid folks devoted to adopting the latest in raffish chic-ness both tend to commit similar errors in judgement. Do not get caught up in their frantic tastelessness. Their misguided attempts at supercilious worldliness, their displays of purported “creativity,” or simple monkey-see-monkey-do herd behaviour must be firmly repudiated. I have seen inappropriate inclusions of lox in pasta, pizza, and sushi. Such experiments are ruinous to both the co-opted and the co-opting cuisines. Should you be presented with a menu offering, for example, fettucini with lox, your classiest response is to rise to your feet at once, loudly denounce the chef as an errant charlatan and take your business elsewhere, perhaps knocking over a few potted ferns on your way out the door. I’m just sayin’ . . . .