A Sunday morning classic with cream cheese and lox, an on-the-run lunch right out of the bag, an afternoon nosh. There is no harder-working bread on Long Island than the bagel. Along with the pizzeria and the deli, the bagel shop is one part of the local fast-food trinity.
Long Islanders take good bagels for granted when they're on Long Island and miss them like crazy when they leave. They debate their relative merits, pitting one shop against another, secure in the knowledge that, on the whole, L.I. bagels are some of the world's best.
And far from getting stale, the local bagel scene bursts with innovation and creativity. Bagels come studded with chocolate chips, raisins, blueberries or sun-dried tomatoes. It used to be that pumpernickel and egg bagels were considered daring, but now bagels are made with multigrain flour, French toast flavoring, vivid colors that celebrate holidays and honor football teams.
Birth of the bagel
The bagel originated in 17th-century Poland and came to the United States with the great migration of Eastern European Jews around the turn of the 20th century. At their most basic, bagels, like pizza, are made with the same four ingredients -- flour, water, salt and yeast.
What distinguishes the bagel from other breads is the method: After the dough is formed into rings, the rings are tossed into boiling water before being baked. Bob Iacullo, a bagel consultant and sales manager at Hicksville's Empire Bakery Equipment Co., explained that boiling the bagel "makes the surface shiny and smooth. Then the oven takes over and makes a nice crust."
At least that's how bagels were made for their first 80 or so years in the United States. But in the late 1980s, a "bagel boom" was ushered in by the invention of the rotating rack oven. Instead of being boiled and baked, trays of dough rings were stacked onto a tall rack. The rack was wheeled into a convection oven that first steamed and then baked the dough. The resultant bagels were softer and less chewy, but bagels, nonetheless.
"The rack oven revolutionized the industry," Iacullo said. "Now you didn't need so much experience in baking to open a bagel store." He estimates that half of Long Island's 300-odd bagel outlets use a rack oven.
Jerry Rosner, the second-generation owner of Bagel Boss in Hicksville, credits mass-market bagels for the bagel boom: "Once supermarkets started selling frozen Lender's bagels," he said, "people who weren't Jewish got curious. And they started to seek out mom-and-pop shops that made them. Other people saw the lines out the bagel-store doors on weekends and thought, 'Hey, I'm going to open up a bagel shop.' "
As bagel shops proliferated, they began to compete. Untraditional flavors, which Iacullo theorized came from California, allowed shops "to differentiate themselves from one another." Another battle in the bagel wars was fought over size. "The traditional bagel was about three ounces," he said. "Now, because of competition, you have five-ounce bagels."
Size had its price. As bagels got bigger, they also got doughier, and crust partisans began scooping out their bagels' interiors. The flagel (flat bagel), which is basically all crust, and the mini-bagel (the size of the original bagel) were both reactions to bagel gigantism.
The biggest change to the bagel landscape is, doubtless, diversification. Bob Kreisner, who opened Bagel Gourmet in East Rockaway last year, observed, "You can't just sell bagels anymore. Rent, ingredients, labor -- it's all expensive. We're really a deli with a full line of Boar's Head products, a chopped-salad bar, a steam table with our own brisket and fresh turkey, muffins, almond milk, soy milk, catering. We try to appeal to everybody."
Rosner estimates that the "bagel-related business" at Bagel Boss now accounts for about 60 percent of sales. But no matter what changes the future brings, the soul of his business will always be the bagel.
"Look at me," he said. "I'm in the business since I was 15. I'm 54. And you know what I start every day with? A cup of black coffee and a cinnamon-raisin bagel."
Our picks for Long Island's best bagels
Full disclosure: I am a bagel Luddite. By me, a bagel should fit in the palm of my hand, should have a crust hard enough to cut my gums, should be topped with only sesame or poppy seeds, garlic, onion or salt. The last innovation I really got behind was the everything bagel.
Don't talk to me about flagels. These flat bagels only exist because bagels got so big, their crust-to-crumb ratio imploded.
Rampant inflation is also responsible for two more capital crimes against bagels:
- The scoop: The bagel that needs its insides scooped out is a bagel that is too big.
- Toasting, which is nothing more than the misdirected desire to recapture the crustiness that is lost when bagels get too big and soft. Toasting is what you do to a bialy, which is another story entirely.
Mini-bagels offer me some succor, and I buy them when I can. For my money, Long Island's best bagels are the mini-bagels at Fairway Market in Plainview. I'm also fond of the mini-bagels at Bagel Master in Syosset. The regular bagels at Bagels and Bialys on Willis Avenue in Albertson are very good (as are the bialys), and I'm so partial to the whitefish salad at Brendel's Bagels (Hauppauge, Huntington Station and Westbury) that I'm happy to have it on the tasty bagel that is, in truth, a little big for my taste.
My colleague and Fine Dining critic Peter M. Gianotti said this about the sesame mini-bagel at Fairway: "It restores your faith in the art of bagelry: chewy, crusty, with a trace of sweetness, all waiting for smoked fish."
Cheap Eats critic Joan Reminick favors the pumpernickel bagel at Bagel Boss in East Northport. "Perhaps it's a tad too big and fat, but I love its crunchy bottom crust and hearty rye flavor."