So yesterday, we’re talking to a friend and he says he doesn’t listen to music anymore. He just reads. We said, in the way that we say things when we don’t know if we approve or not but don’t really have anything to add, “That’s nice.” The gentleman in question said something we’re misquoting now as, “No, I’m not sure about that.” He elaborated, then ended it by saying that it’s a niche interest. What is? Reading. Reading? Really?
Now, at Fine Bagels, we’ve been suspicious of this for some time but, for our own miserable sake, not in need to anything more to add to our repertoire of “modern complaints which incite us to curse a world of ‘digital natives,'” we ignored this. Still, a conversation like that, be it true or not, we figured we ought to read a book this weekend, lest we be complicit. John Waters will tell you, “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”
Michael Wex, of Born to Kvetch fame, recently released a book whose title somehow, somehow, speaks to us as much as Born to Kvetch. We’re going to keep both of these on our bookshelf if only for the cover photos.
Bagels, deli sandwiches, and kosher dills are only a few of the Jewish foods to have crossed into American culture and onto non-Jewish plates. From the Bible and Talmud to the delis of North America, Rhapsody in Schmaltz traces the history and impact of the cuisine that Yiddish-speaking Jews from Central Eastern Europe brought across the Atlantic and that their North American descendants have developed and refined.
Alright. If reading really is such a niche hobby these days, at least a book for our niche interests.
If you’ve kept up with installments I-III of Fine Bagels Goes to America, you might have noticed a hole in our eating. Or, rather, a lack thereof. The trip involved so many deli sandwiches. So many pickles. Such an unreasonable amount of chopped liver. All this and yet…no bagels. Whilst in America, shouldn’t we have been hitting up bagel shops with the same sort of compulsion we wander suburban Targets? No, reader. No. We’ve said it before. If there was a Rosenfeld’s Bagels in Berlin, we never would have had to start making our own bagels. And so, when Fine Bagels went to America, there was only one stop for bagels. One stop, oft repeated. So now, a treat: the bagel portion of Fine Bagels Goes to America. In which we try to keep our cool around a true bagel master. Rosenfeld’s was opened in 1973 in Newton Centre and to this day, there is still just the one location where everything is baked on-site, open Wednesdays through Sundays. Most of the place is bakery, packed with equipment and ovens, and the rest is a small storefront with the essentials: cream cheese fridge, bagel display, and piles of challah, babka, and coffee rings. In case there was any doubt, these are proper NY-style water-boiled bagels. (“Montreal bagels are hideous. No salt. No taste at all.”)Mike, the guy who runs the place, was good enough to indulge our super fandom and went out of his way to take us around the bakery, explaining everything from equipment to ingredients. Mike started working at Rosenfeld’s in 1988 on the week of Thanksgiving. His first day was a rainy one and when it rained back in those days, the stairwell behind the bakery would flood. Result being that his first job at the bakery was bailing water with a coffee cup. (Mike took us back there to show us). But he figured it wasn’t as bad as construction work so he stayed with it, planning to stick around 6 months. Nearly thirty years later, after working his way into every aspect of the business and process, he takes care of the whole baking operation.
Now, here is where we think it’s important to clarify. Mike doesn’t just manage the place, but also one of the four bakers. He has his hands in the dough every day and is constantly modifying, adjusting, and improving. He fiddles with water temperatures, dough saturation, yeasts, and braiding techniques. Anything to get a better bagel. A more perfect loaf of challah. As Mike himself says, “One of the funnest aspects is that it’s never exactly right. There’s always room for improvement.” The point we’re trying to make is that this is no laissez-faire way of running a bakery. Mike cares about what he does. Mike’s keeping things old-fashioned, in the best way possible. The place is something of a modern reflection of the old immigrant-run basement-level bagel bakeries of the Lower East Side where the bagel developed into what it is today (or rather, what, under ideal circumstances, the bagel is today). And when we say modern reflection…well…Mike says, “I like that you can come here and it’s still like 1975.” Which is fantastic. Because we at Fine Bagels hate change. Particularly with the aesthetics of a beloved institution.
Mike told us that if we wanted to know about the kind of place Rosenfeld’s was back in the day, this video captures the essence of both the kind of place and the kind of guys who were making the bagels. And indeed, it was well worth the watching, if only to hear spoken the line,”These people in the Midwest wouldn’t know a bagel from a doughnut. Only reason they ever saw a bagel was one fell off a truck.”
Despite it’s ubiquity, the bagel took a quality downturn in the late twentieth century. Us at Fine Bagels were largely sheltered from The Great Bagel Crap-ization. We come from a coddling and protective family. In our bubble of privelege, we assumed all bagels were on par with a toasted Rosenfeld’s onion bagel lathered thick in vegetable cream cheese. But all the while, this was a bad era for the bagel. As Mike says, “What the bagel became in the 1990’s was a big soft sweet hamburger bun with a hole in it. And that’s not what a bagel is.” Oh yes. YES. Thank you, Mike. We’re going to adapt that phrase, substituting “the 1990’s” for “Berlin,” translate it to German, and shout it aggressively from the front step of Fine Bagels. Rosenfeld’s makes thousands of bagels a day and the most popular flavor is plain, followed by everything and sesame. They’ve got all the good flavors…garlic, onion, salt, egg, pumpernickel, caraway…even the unicorn that is a a potato bagel. We visited on St. Patrick’s day. For those of you anthropologically unfamiliar with Boston, the holiday is observed primarily by adding green food coloring to otherwise ordinary objects. Rosenfeld’s did not disappoint.
Rosenfeld’s doesn’t just make great bagels, they make the best challah we’ve ever eaten. Ever. When we were in college in Medford, we’d take the Green Line, that disfunctional little trolley, all the way across the city just to get a loaf. This challah habit of ours culminated in the great challah binge of 2002, which we’re torn between never speaking of again or saving for an overshare. We were excited to discover that it was Mike himself who brought challah-baking to Rosenfeld’s. Now we know who to blame for those extra five pounds we could never seem to lose until the day we moved out of Boston.Before we left, we asked Mike why Rosenfeld’s bagels are the best we’ve ever had. His answer was simple. “Process. Skill. You can get a bagel anywhere, but you can’t get that anywhere.”
In case it didn’t come across by now, we walked away impressed. These bagels, we’ve known them our whole life and yet never knew anything about them. And sometimes, when you dig into these things, you’re putting that pedestal you built at risk for a crash. Heck, we half expected to be let down. After all, adulthood is full of disappointments. (Family motto on both sides). That’s why finding out that our favorite bagel place is really, truly, keepin’ it real, it meant a lot. There was no disappointment this day. As Mike said to us, “You have to do this to do this.” So almost thirty years in, he’s there on his day off counting cream cheese containers.
The most interesting looking people are generally the most unapproachable people for the socially anxious us of Fine Bagels. This was definitely the case with Kyla and Isaac. Look at those pants. And that fanny pack. Who wears a fanny pack slung around their chest? Cool and unapproachable people, that’s who. Fortunately, we’re terrible judges of character. Kyla is from Bali which is probably a lot nicer than Berlin. Isaac is from Vancouver which we could really take or leave. Kyla had never had a bagel before and Isaac was showing her the ropes, starting her off on a rosemary seasalt and a classic poppyseed. We asked the question we ask of every non-Quebecois Canadian: Do you have Montreal bagels where you live or New York bagels? Isaac said Montreal. He then, unsolicited, said that he likes Montreal bagels better. Fine. Whatever. If big-holed, fast-rising, wood-fired, delicious little séparatistes are your thing, Isaac, that’s none of our business. Literally. Our business is New York style bagels.
Isaac had amazing hand-sewn pants that we’re pretty sure are airbrushed. We are fascinated by the airbrushing on these pants as we are by all the things forbidden us as youths (cable television, 10:00pm, non-generic foodstuffs, a pony, Fluff, airbrushed clothing). Airbrushed clothing meant unsavory places like the carnival and unsavory places like the carnival meant stranger danger. Isaac is a pleasant and open person and combined with those airbrushed trousers, he is at definite risk for stranger danger.To try her first bagel ever, Kyla had an excellent outfit of layered velvety prints and rough mattes. For our first bagel, we were almost certainly wearing a soiled diaper and ragefully mourning the loss of the breast, so she’s got one up on us. To our defense, it was the early eighties and everyone looked terrible.Isaac
As is our frequent and deliberately antagonistic theme, Israelis don’t know from bagels. To be fair, we don’t know from Sabich. Hell, we didn’t even know from Israeli Salad until our Pop Fine’s funeral when our Auntie Adele took charge of the delicatessen platters. We weren’t sure what was so Israeli about cucumbers and tomatoes but so be it. Our energy is better conserved and prioritized for origins-of-hummus arguments. This all leads to Part II of our bagel-sabich eugenics series: Gordon at Fine Bagels. In which the boys from Gordon make delicious, delicious Sabich on pita or bagel. (Slow on the uptake? See Part I: Fine Bagels at Gordon)
Now, this is Central Europe where people fear spice and flavor with the same terrified passion we reserve for air travel, German Shepards, and emotional commitment. Result being that many unwisely chose to eat their sabich without skhug, the spicy green Yemenite sauce that we suggest drinking straight, like one of those algae-based health smoothies. Recipe for the best part of the sabich here. Except for the one sabich bagel some weirdo ordered on a cinnamon raisin, it was one of the tastiest, drippiest, spiciest, and eggplanty-est days at Fine Bagels we can remember.
Tom is one of our bakers. When he bakes Fine Bagels, he wears a very special tshirt. We think it makes the bagels taste even better.
If you’re into the noise scene in Jerusalem (and no, we don’t mean feral cats in heat baying at the moon), then surely you know Lietterschpich? They sound terrible. That’s probably because we don’t understand anything about what they’re trying to accomplish with their music. Not to mention we started off on the wrong Google foot when our first find was this abomination of a cover of Monkey Gone To Heaven. We mean, what the hell? Before Berlin, we’re from Boston. There is only one version of that song, and the Lietterschpich version is not it.
So despite the music, there is something we love about Lietterschpich. And that’s Tom’s T-shirt. Because of this:
We asked Tom a few questions:
Fine Bagels: What did you say the band’s name means again?
Tom: One Liter of Cum.
Fine Bagels: Nasty.
Fine Bagels: Tom, how did you come to possess such an excellent shirt? Surely you’re not a fan of this crappy band.
We make them, but we don’t get them. When we started Fine Bagels, we didn’t make everything bagels. Why didn’t we make them? Because we’re pretty sure that the everything bagel is a gimmick. There’s going to be one dominant flavor point, be it onion or garlic or salt or nigella, and then the rest is just there to get stuck in your teeth. Meanwhile you chose it because you think you’re somehow getting more when, really, you’re not choosing anything. Getting an everything bagel is the absence of choice. If we want to eat sesame, we get a sesame bagel. If we are in the mood for onions, we get an onion bagel. Our idea of an everything bagel is getting a dozen different flavors and eating them in one sitting.
Eventually, a few months into business, we gave in to demands and started making an everything bagel. So what if they look like the floor of the kitchen after the baking is done for the day? Everyone but us loves the everything bagel. We sell twice as many everything bagels as any other flavor and 8 out of 10 people who both to tell us that they have a favorite flavor say it’s everything. To that, we say: No. You do not have a favorite flavor.