While in New York City for the first time recently, it was my full intention to find and eat a real New York bagel for the food blog. I had heard that H&H Bagels was a good place to go, so when I met John and Elsa, a local couple in their seventies, at the bar of the MoMA restaurant Modern where we were all having lunch, I decided to get the local wisdom on this recommendation.


According to John and Elsa, H&H is not the goods. They like to go to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side to buy bagels to take home (http://www.zabars.com/). I only had two days in NYC and much as I wanted to go to the Upper West Side, principally to get a picture of myself outside Tom’s Diner, the location used by Seinfeld as Monk’s Coffee Shop, I was planning to focus only on Midtown and the Village. John and Elsa had a great recommendation for this area as well – Russ and Daughters Appetizing House in the Lower East Side (http://www.russanddaughters.com/).

Russ & Daughters front

An appetizing store is a store that sells “the foods one eats with bagels.” Appetizing, a term used by American Jews, especially those in NYC, includes both dairy and “pareve” (neither dairy nor meat) food items such as lox, whitefish, and cream cheese, foods typically eaten for breakfast or lunch that, based on Jewish dietary laws, include no meat products (kosher fish products are not considered meat). In short, an appetizing store sells fish and dairy products, whereas a delicatessen sells meats (but not dairy if it’s kosher).

russ and daughters bagel

The New York bagel contains salt and malt and is boiled in water prior to baking in a standard oven, creating a puffy ring with a moist crust. The reasons for this cooking method are rooted in Jewish religious laws regarding no work on the Sabbath. The dough was prepared the day before, chilled during the day, and boiled and baked only after the end of the Sabbath, therefore using the Sabbath as a productive time in the bagel-making process as the dough needs to slowly rise in a chilled environment before cooking.

Elsa complained that today’s commercial bagels are too soft. The reason for this is that commercial bakers have begun making the “steam bagel”, skipping the boiling stage and baking the bagels in an oven with a steam injection system. This requires less labor –bagels are only handled once at the shaping stage, but also results in a fluffier, softer, less chewy product not appreciated by purists like Elsa.

I have to give a shout out to Canada here, as the home of the other major bagel variety in North America – the Montreal bagel. Our version contains malt and sugar with no salt; it is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking in a wood-fired oven and is usually dipped either in black poppy or white sesame seeds.

According to Wikipedia, “bagel” is also an Orthodox Jewish term for sleeping 12 hours straight, e.g. “I slept a bagel last night.” This may be a reference to the fact that bagel dough has to “rest” for at least 12 hours between mixing and baking, or simply the fact that the hour hand on a clock traces a bagel shape over the course of twelve hours.

Either way, I slept a bagel in NYC, probably due to the high temperatures and humidity, or maybe just because the bed at my hotel – the delightful art deco-influenced and eminently affordable Washington Square Hotel in the West Village – was so comfortable. And did not have time to go for my bagel. So this is now a pilgrimage on the list for my eagerly anticipated next visit to NYC.

Instead, I bought a salted pretzel at the airport and ate it with packets of mustard. It, like the rest of New York, was divine.

~ Deb