When other people anticipate a trip to New York City, they might think about fine dining. What’s the latest new cuisine to taste? Which famous chef should we try? Where do we need to make a reservation?
Or they may be looking for “ethnic” food: Chinese, for example, or Cuban, or Cuban-Chinese (yes, that’s a thing!).
What I look forward to more than anything is a bagel.
Bagels originated in Poland – and they still sell something similar on the street there – and were brought to the US by Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. For generations it was primarily a Jewish food eaten in New York City, but nowadays it’s far more widespread.
Check out the excellent Tenement Museum while you’re in NYC.
Why are NY bagels so good?
However, the bagel I crave is very specific: it has to come from New York City. If you don’t live in or near there, what you think of as a bagel isn’t quite the same thing.
I grew up in Connecticut, and every Sunday morning my mother or father would drive down to Gold’s Deli in Westport to pick up a bag of bagels. Gold’s had them delivered early each morning from New York, so they were the real thing.
Why are NY bagels so good? It must be something in the water that explains why they’re better than other bagels. I assume that bagel-makers in California, for example, use the same recipe as in New York: bagels are a yeast bread and, after rising, they’re shaped and then boiled in water before they’re baked. But somehow they’re never quite the same anywhere else.
In New York, the bagels are chewy and slightly salty. They present a certain resistance when you bite down, but the crust isn’t crispy; it’s just the right amount of chewy.
(I should add that nowadays some of the bagel factories are actually in New Jersey, but that’s right next door, so they’re still New York bagels, as far as I’m concerned. At least, they taste just the same anyway.)
We always ate them with cream cheese and, when my father was feeling flush, he’d also buy lox. Lox is smoked salmon, sliced from the belly of the fish, and it isn’t the same as what you can buy in the supermarket. At Gold’s they would slice it right off the salmon, so it wasn’t so neat, but it was saltier and had a stronger flavor.
So that’s what I wanted in New York: a quality bagel—a plain one, not one of these sacrilegious blueberry bagels or cinnamon-raisin or chocolate chip bagels—with cream cheese and lox.
I found a listing on-line of the best bagel places in New York and simply figured out which was nearest to where I was staying, the Jane Hotel in the meatpacking district. That turned out to be Murray’s Bagels: a hole-in-the-wall deli on 6th Avenue between 13th and 14th in Greenwich Village, with just a few tables and a constantly long line waiting to buy their perfect bagels.
They were indeed perfect. I had one for breakfast both days and, exaggerating only a little, it was heaven. Eating very slowly, I focused intently on each bite, putting off the moment when it was done.
I so wish someone here in Holland would figure out how to recreate that perfect bagel. Our Sunday morning bagels were so special.
Murray’s Bagels: 500 Avenue of the Americas, between 12th and 13th Streets. Nearest subway station is 14th Street for the 1, 2, 3, F, M and L lines. Open Monday-Friday 6:00-21:00, Saturday-Sunday 6:00-20:00.
And speaking of subway stations, have you seen the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn?
If you’re planning a trip to New York City, use this map to book your acccommodations:
How to eat bagels
Not only did I grow up in the Sunday morning bagel-eating tradition, but when I was 16 my first summer job was waitressing at Gold’s Deli. I learned a thing or two about bagels there:
Types of bagels
As I mentioned above, bagels are available in lots of different flavors these days. The traditional ones are covered in sesame seeds or poppy seeds or onion or salt. I also remember pumpernickel or egg bagels from my youth. My favorites are just plain white bagels.
How to prepare a bagel
The main thing is that it needs to be fresh, preferably boiled and baked the same day. In a good New York City bagel place, you can count on that.
You can eat a bagel as is, with no preparation. Some people like to toast them, which gives them just a bit of a crunchier crust.
How to cut a bagel
This is a safety issue. Bagels have a smooth surface, and your instinct might be to hold the bagel in one hand while slicing down on it in the direction of your palm with the knife in the other hand. Don’t do it! The knife may slip and you’ll end up with a bloody palm.
Instead, lay the bagel down so that it’s horizontal on a plate or cutting board. Place one hand on it, but keep your hand flat, pushing down firmly. With the other hand, take a bread knife and start slicing the bagel horizontally. You’re much less likely to end up cutting your hand this way!
Once you reach the halfway point, you can place the bagel vertically if you want, but still keep it in contact with the plate. Hold it steady with your fingers around the upper half of the bagel – the part that’s already been cut. Saw with the knife under your hand but downward toward the plate, away from your hand.
If you want to toast the bagel, it should fit in a toaster once you’ve cut it.
For lots of ideas of things to see and do in New York City, check out my article New York City on a Budget: Free or cheap things to do!
What to put on bagels
People put all kinds of things on bagels: pretty much anything you can put in a sandwich can go on a bagel as well. I admit that some of these just feel sacrilegious to me: ham and cheese, for example, on a Jewish food? But of course, the reality is that these days anything goes.
A more traditional topping is butter or cream cheese. In Jewish families that keep kosher, bagels are a breakfast food because generally breakfast is a no-meat meal. Kosher rules prohibit combining milk products with meat, so items like milk and cream cheese end up relegated to breakfast.
My favorite topping for a bagel, as I pointed out above, is cream cheese with lox. Sometimes people eat a “schmear” of cream cheese with chives mixed in or with bits of smoked salmon mixed in. The latter is a cheap alternative to slices of smoked salmon. Or they add a slice of raw onion or a sprinkling of capers.
How to eat a bagel
At home we often ate bagels open-faced, spreading cream cheese and slices of lox on both halves. In a bagel shop, you’ll receive the bagel as a closed sandwich, and it’ll be cut in half like a sandwich as well.
Bagels do not last well in, say, a bread box or in the fridge: a day or two at most, and you’ll have to toast them after a day to get them back to the right texture. When I visit New York City, I buy a baker’s dozen of fresh bagels the morning of my flight home. I ask the shop to double-wrap them and I take them home in my luggage. When I arrive, I immediately take them out, wrap them tightly and individually, and chuck them in the freezer.
The flavor and texture stays good if you let a bagel defrost, then slice it as instructed above and toast it. However, I usually can’t wait, so I zap it just for a minute at a low temperature in the microwave, just enough to be able to slice it for the toaster.
The hard part, for me, is making my freezer supply last!
Have you ever eaten a true New York bagel?
First published in May 2015. Expanded and republished in June 2021.