For a half chink/half hillbilly kid from the midwest, I’ve got a long relationship with bagels. My dad’s tai qi students in the 70s included a number of Jewish folks who, like most others in that town in those days, were hippies experimenting with food, martial arts and a bunch of other stuff. One of the women, whose name was Yolanda I think, made bagels once. My Dad was pretty intrigued by other culture’s traditional foods, particularly when he could hold forth about why his own traditional food was comparable or better. So we got a whole paper grocery bag of bagels. The most exciting of all was that some of them were shaped like bears. There were pumpernickel and regular bears and they were chewy, leathery and had a smooth skin. I think Yolanda got tired of me asking her every time I saw her after that about the bagel bears.
In those days my dad used to drive all over creation on the weekends, catering Chinese dinners in people’s houses. When he was in the wealthy Northwest suburbs of Detroit, he’d sometimes stop at a deli there on the way home. He never ate his own fancy cooking, instead he’d stop at this east-coast style deli, in his cooking clothes smelling of cooking grease and pepper, and have a corn beef sandwich. My dad loved corn beef. On a couple of special occasions, I got to go to the far away deli and had lox on a bagel. It was an absurd pile of lox that sort of freaked me out, but there was the magic chewy bread again.
Fast forward a few years and my dad opened a restaurant, which happened to be about two blocks from Zingerman’s Deli. My dad would get giant corn beef sandwiches sometimes, but I always wanted a bagel with fish. (By that time it was pretty easy to get Lender’s bagels at the grocery and I ate them all during junior high, but I knew they weren’t The Real Deal). By the end of highschool I was working at Zingerman’s, so good bagels lost their novelty, although having leftover day-old bagels was still a nice job benefit. My Dad’s restaurant didn’t last long, and we couldn’t afford to eat at Zingerman’s except when one of us was working there (and all us kids did at one point or another). 25+ years later Zingerman’s is world famous (although their bagels aren’t as good)
I think I was probably in college before I caught on that bagels were Officially Hard to Make, because they were boiled. Now I live in a west coast foodie town, full of Brooklyn transplants who talk about whether you can get good bagels around here. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. When the only good local bagel franchises was bought out by Einstein’s everyone freaked out, then a bunch of artisanal bagel shops sprouted up. Last week I figured, what the hell, and made some myself. I’m not patient enough to make bagels, and I also have no place to cure them in my fridge. But they came out okay.