Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It Must Be Something in the Water

There's an interesting article on today, recounting the history of the bagel. The author talks about the bagel's start in Poland, and then its emergence in New York with Jewish immigrants, and then goes into the (kind of unpalatable, in my opinion) move towards mass-production. It's an interesting read, and if nothing else, I think it says a lot about the patterns of food that follow patterns of immigration in America. Think about it - 100 years ago, pizza was only available in Italian enclaves; Chinese food was unheard of.*

I relate to the bagel piece. I grew up in a town fifteen miles from Manhattan's Times Square: there were bagels everywhere, and the only doubt as to what Sunday morning breakfast would be revolved around the age-old question: plain, or onion? (As a sidenote, my personal favorite perfect bagel is lightly toasted everything, with a schmear, tomato, lox, red onion, and a few capers. I think everything bagels are relatively new, though, since I don't remember them being around before I was maybe twelve years old (1992). Can anyone speak to this?). I remember going with my dad to the bagel store in town - the best bagel store in town - for the baker's dozen: if you bought twelve bagels (for 30 cents each, back in the day), the baker would throw in a 13th bagel for free; and sometimes, he would hand me a small salt bagel, fresh and hot, to munch on while my dad fumbled with his wallet.

It's also interesting that bagels are traditionally a Jewish Sunday morning breakfast. I wondered why that was, so I did some research. Wikipedia says that the cooking method lends itself to the timing. The entry states the following:

At its most basic, traditional bagel dough contains wheat flour (without germ or bran), salt, water, and yeast leavening. Bread flour or other high gluten flours are preferred to create the firm and dense bagel shape and texture. Most bagel recipes call for the addition of a sweetener to the dough, often barley malt (syrup or crystals), honey, or sugar. Leavening can be accomplished using either a sourdough technique or using commercially produced yeast.

Bagels are traditionally made by:

* mixing and kneading the ingredients to form the dough
* shaping the dough into the traditional bagel shape, round with a hole in the middle
* proofing the bagels for at least 12 hours at low temperature (40-50 degrees F = 4.5-10°C)
* boiling each bagel in water that may or may not contain additives such as lye, baking soda, barley malt syrup, or honey
* baking at between 175°C and 315°C (about 350 to 600 degrees F)

It is this unusual production method which is said to give bagels their distinctive taste, chewy texture, and shiny appearance. In the context of Jewish culture, this process provided an additional advantage in that it could be followed without breaking the no-work rule of the Sabbath. The dough would be prepared on 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 for a time before cooking).

Since we moved to Boston, I've been looking for the perfect bagel. I live very close to Brookline's Coolidge Corner neighborhood, which is heavily populated by Jews, and Orthodox Jews in particular. I've focused my search on the bagel bakeries around my neighborhood. The bagels are good, but not the same as they are in New York. This seems strange to me, since the recipes are the same, the dietary laws and ancillary methods and ingredients are the same, and in some cases, even the bakers are the same - transplants like me (don't ask me how I know this; I'll just say that there are a lot of undercover Yankees fans like me prowling around the neighborhood).

The only difference I can find between New York bagels baked in Boston, and New York bagels baked in New York, is the water. This theory: that Boston water is different from New York water (or, more wide-ranging, that New York water is different from non-New York water), is relatively well-accepted. Example, Example, Example, Example, Example. Fair enough. Now, the question is: what's so special about New York water? This, unfortunately, we will (or at least I will) probably never know. I'm sure it has something to do with the minerals in the water that seep in from the reservoirs, or the top-secret additives that the government puts into the water, or the way in which it's filtered and what's left behind. Someone who knows more than I do about this needs to tell me - until then, I fear my only recourse will be to continue to bring bagels back to Boston with me from New York, or to ask my parents to ship gallons of water to me from New York for me to make my own bagels with.

* I read somewhere that pizza's rise in American cuisine actually owes a lot to American soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II that got hooked on pizza, and then came home and led to the modern-day demand. I also know that Chinese food in America is not the same as Chinese food in China. So maybe those aren't really the best examples of food following immigrants. But the idea's there. Maybe a better parallel would be Greek food? Japanese food?

1 comment:

busgirl said...

I remember hearing about a NY transplant in Chicago who owns a "NY style" pizzeria - he has NY water shipped there to make the dough.