Winnipeg has had a bagel renaissance. It’s not exactly a bagel mecca, and these are definitely not the New York City bagels my husband was raised eating. However, the recent bagel trends here are a step forward.
In the earlier days of the pandemic, summer 2020, my kids and I were out at the park when we met another family who seemed to recognize us, I’m not sure from where. I was surprised when they struck up a conversation but we had such a nice moment. Now that we’ve all spent so much time on our own, I have come to realize how important these outdoor encounters can be to our health and well-being.
Towards the end of the chat, these kind strangers handed us a bagel, straight from a brown paper bag that contained a couple dozen, as my twins were missing snack and getting hangry (hungry angry). We divided it up and ate. Ohhh. It was good. Not exactly a Montreal bagel, more like a combination between a New York City and a Montreal bagel, but definitely better than anything I’d ever had in Winnipeg.
I rushed home to tell my husband how to acquire more of these. Bagelsmith was, at that time, almost an underground bakery with a simple website. It didn’t have an open storefront, due to the pandemic, but if you got online right at 8 p.m. Sunday night, you could get bagels delivered on, say, a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. There were also schmears, but these all had strange things mixed in with the cream cheese, which my purist spouse could not abide even considering. Soon, we were up to ordering three or four dozen of these at a time.
It should be noted that these bagels have a hole in the centre and are properly boiled but, although we enjoy sesame, poppy or everything bagels, they have way too many seeds for our taste. In fact, we’ve collected the seeds from the bottom of a paper bag, filled a spice jar with them and used them for challah toppings. (That is way too many seeds for a house with kids in it. They get everywhere and our dog doesn’t like them!)
I clarify all this because we have been treated to all kinds of bagels over the years that, quite frankly, are not bagels. Round things with a hole perhaps, but they haven’t been boiled, or boiled things that have no hole, or varieties that are absolutely abhorrent to a purist. The Big Nope – blueberry bagels. We’ve lived in a variety of places, including North Carolina, Kentucky and Buffalo, N.Y., and had to do without, because some bagels aren’t worth the calories.
My husband spent part of his childhood getting pletzels and biales from Kossar’s on the Lower East Side in New York and bagels from Russ and Daughters. (Of course, in New York City, there are a lot of good bagel places!) His grandparents and the extended Eastern European family have strong memories of what things should taste like. He has very high standards. Years ago, on a work trip to Montreal, his colleague and good friend (who happens to be Muslim), took my husband on a tour of all the famous Montreal bagel places. Then, the friend loaded him up with so many bagels and so much Montreal smoked meat that it was hard to carry it all home on the plane. This is the kind of love they have for each other, a perfect experience – two longtime colleagues who affectionately value each other through food!
Back to Winnipeg … as the bakery grew and the pandemic situation changed, there were times when we could not get these bagels delivered. The bakery was downtown in a spot that wasn’t far away but was hard to negotiate by car. I even figured out that the bagel baker had children who went to our kids’ school. However, when everybody’s in remote school, that morsel of information is useless. When we couldn’t get them delivered, we went without. This wasn’t a life or death situation. I baked our bread regularly and, when the local bakery was open, we got sourdough bread, baked in a wood-fired oven.
You may think that I could try harder, and maybe that’s true. I bake lots of bread, but draw the line at any recipe that takes more than 24 hours or is fidgety. I leave croissant production, bagel boiling and sourdough to the experts. After one multi-day sourdough experiment in hot weather in Kentucky, we agreed that, while the pink thing I grew was definitely alive, it wasn’t likely to be edible or safe. Lucky for me that my husband is a scientific researcher, because that weird starter attempt was not worth the risk to health and safety.
OK, back to our bagels. A huge thing has happened. Our favourite, artisanal, expensive bagel bakery has opened a second shop, and it’s easy to get to and just about in the neighbourhood. Today was the grand opening. It was also our 24th wedding anniversary.
My husband went out in between work meetings and came home with two dozen – yes, 24 – bagels. No, it’s not flowers or wine or a fancy meal, but to my partner, this is as good and romantic as it gets.
Bagels are an ethnic delight for Polish Jews. To be honest, I wasn’t raised with steady access to good bagels, growing up in Virginia. Bagels weren’t my (more North American assimilated, with some Western European roots) family’s biggest food focus. However, the Talmud speaks to this, too. We have a papercut, framed in our kitchen, of this phrase. Check out Pirkei Avot 3:17 – “No bread, no Torah. No Torah? No bread.” If you don’t have food, you can’t learn properly and without learning? You can’t earn your bread, either.
So, here’s to a good bagel, and a person, a partner, with whom I can continue to learn and grow. Here’s to another 24 years. L’chaim! B’tayavon. Enjoy your meal. Eat in good health!
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.