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.