Which bagel is the best? If we can settle the bagel question, I figure, it will go a long way to unifying the country. The year was 2000. I wanted to begin the new millennium on a clean slate, so I call the foremost bagel bakers, coast-to-coast. Their response was unanimous: “ We’ll put our bagels up against anyone’s.”
“I’m looking for the country’s best bagel,” I say to the Vice President of Purolator Courier. “We’ll pick up your bagels and overnight them to you” he says, “But you should know that the best bagels are from New York.”
There you are. Bagel love is like blind patriotism.
Meanwhile, I make a bagel scorecard: Colour. Shine. Flavour on the tongue, (first bite.) Flavour in the chew, (eating satisfaction.) Mouth feel, (aftertaste.) Eaten plain. Eaten with cream cheese and lox.
Next morning, six bagel mavens sit around my dining room table, chomping at the bit to put their taste buds on the line in a blind taste test.
Purolator delivers my bagels from Montréal, Winnipeg, Toronto and Vancouver by 9:30 a.m. I ask the Courier about his bagel preference. “Tim Horton’s,” he says.
While the bagels are warming in the oven I put a crucial question to the Members of the Jury: “How do you feel about a bagel that’s not from your own hometown? Can you make an impartial decision?”
Publisher: “I am not tabula rasa when it comes to the taste of bagels.”
University Professor: “I was imprinted as a kid growing up in Montréal.”
Artist: “I have a passion and proclivity for bagel lore and legend.”
Broadcaster: “I’m going on record that I have a strong bagel bias.”
Accountant: “My favourite is predetermined, but the numbers won’t lie.”
Actor: “What is my motivation here…. It’s just a bagel.”
Gunns Bakery, Winnipeg
Morris Gunn emigrated from Poland to Winnipeg in 1937 and began making bagels on Selkirk Avenue. Today Gunn’s is run by sons Bernie and Fivey, and produces more than 300 different baked goods. “So Bernie,” I ask, “What makes Gunns bagels so special? “For 80 years,” he says, “We’ve been using the original recipes and the same principles. And the cold pure water from Shoal lake in northern Manitoba makes a difference.”
St. Viateur Bagel Shop (La Maison de Bagel), Montreal
Twenty four hours a day, every day except for Passover, they’re baking handmade bagels, with no preservatives, in a wood burning oven. This year, owner Joe Morena celebrates the bakery’s 60th anniversary. Morena, an Italian, amazes me with his perfectly accented old-style Yiddish. “I came to work here when I was 10 years old, straight from Italy,” he says. “The owner spoke only Yiddish and it was the only way I could communicate with him, so I learned the language.” Maybe he thought he was learning to speak French.
Moishe Gryfe oversees a bakery that makes 1000 dozen bagels a day. It’s a big difference from 1915, the year his grandfather emigrated from Romania to Hamilton, Ontario, where he baked bread and delivered it by horse and wagon. When Gryfe opened in Toronto 85 years ago, a customer asked him to make some bagels. She said they were the worst bagels she had ever tasted in her life. The senior Gryfe began experimenting and came up with today’s great bagels that sell out like, well, bagels.
Fairmont Bagel Bakery, Montréal
Irwin Shlafman is a fourth generation bagel baker. His grandfather was a baker in Russia and came to Montréal in 1919. On St. Lawrence Boulevard just south of Schwartz’s deli, he built a wood-stove protected by a shed, and made bagels in the same way he had done in Kiev. Business was good. He became upscale, bought a house, knocked out a wall in the living room and built a large wood-fired stove in which to bake his hand-rolled bagels. The recipe was passed from father to son, about 2 ½ pails of this, a shovel of that, etc. Grandfather’s recipe is still used as a base, although they do experiment with new-age bagels, with ingredients like sun-dried tomato.
Bagel World, Toronto
You don’t have to be Jewish to love bagels, or to own a bagel bakery. William Zaduk owns the business, but relies on the bakers who have been working there for decades, using the same old gas oven. The large crusty twisters are made by hand, regular bagels by machine.
Siegel’s Bagels, Vancouver (and other locations)
A bagel habit is hard to break. Joel Siegel came to Vancouver from Montréal decades ago and couldn’t find a decent bagel. So he began rolling his own and baking them in a hard-wood burning oven. Today Siegel’s bagel shops are everywhere in the city.
Out of a possible total of 250 points, every bagel gets an impossibly high score. The Winnipeg mavens hint at jury tampering. The Montrealers demand a recount, pointing to numbers on the scorecards that go outside the lines. Torontonians begin flinging bagels. Bagel rage. In the end we have a hung jury. “The bagel question is too broad,” they say, “ We need a referendum, or at least a public inquiry.” As a precedent, they cite Will Rogers who said, “I never met a bagel I didn’t like.”
I have launched an appeal.
Sara Waxman is an award-winning restaurant critic, best-selling cookbook author, food and travel journalist and has eaten her way through much of the free world for four decades, while writing about it in books, newspapers and magazines. She is the Editor in Chief of DINE and Destinations magazine.