Barb and the Bagel
When we first moved to the UK a decade ago, I became a self-defense bagel baker. We were living in one tower of some friends’ medieval castle [here], when I was conscripted for life into the Wednesday Morning Village Coffee rota. Sadly, after my one try at making scones, I was strictly forbidden to attempt them again.
So began my coffee morning career of mystifying my village neighbors with weird American foods. First up were the cupcakes (“muffins”, I was informed). Next was the blueberry coffeecake, which nobody touched until I explained that it wasn’t really made out of coffee. Most disconcerting of all was the strange foreign food item which I told them was called… a bagel. Nobody had ever had one before, although a few admitted hearing of them. They gathered around and stared as I suggested they top their bagels with cream cheese.
“She means Philadelphia,” someone explained. “In America they think it’s called cream cheese.”
Undeterred, I unveiled my pièce de résistance. “Lox!”
“Here in England,” one lady finally told me kindly, “…we call that salmon.”
Many looked frankly skeptical as I sliced bagels. “Is it an American donut?”
“They eat fish on their donuts in America?”
“Maybe a little homemade jam would help?”
When we moved to the small Scottish Isle of Arran a few years ago, I continued to make bagels. Still completely self-defense, really, because the bagels sold on the mainland are basically round bread with holes in the middle. A few months ago, I brought my homemades to a local house concert and had so many requests that I agreed to do a little bagel baking class.
Here’s the thing about living on Arran. In the winter, tourists are mostly gone, restaurants and shops are shuttered, and you might think it’s really quiet. But instead, friends and neighbors jump in and turn even the most mundane activity into a social event.
As my friend Heather put it, “A bagel baking class might seem so middle class anywhere else. But on Arran, it’s cool.”
I put a short invitation on Arran’s Facebook page, and within the hour, the class was full. So I added a second night and began stockpiling flour. When people arrived on the night, I started with the important info (loo location, and apologies for all the wasps who had decided my house was the perfect spot to come in, fly around drunkenly, and die. Lots.) Then I asked each person to tell me about the best bagel they’d ever had.
We had some bagel virgins, but for the most part my neighbors on this little Island are a cosmopolitan, globe-trotting bunch. “New York, London, Paris, Manchester.” They reported. “Brooklyn, Vancouver, Sydney, Boston.” The list went on. I told them about some of my favorite bagel variations: the iconic deep-fried Fragel in Anne Arbor Michigan, the famous Noah’s bagel-dogs… [Pause here, while Barb moans. Pathetically.]
As part of the interfaith experience, I recalled the time I’d gone to my daughter’s preschool class to tell them about Hanukkah. I told the children the story of the Maccabees’ long fight to reclaim their defiled Temple from Seleucid conquerors, and how their one night’s supply of purified oil miraculously burned for the eight nights it took to resupply. I concluded, “So we light candles and get presents for eight nights to celebrate how important it is to be free.” There was a dead silence. Finally, one little boy raised his hand. “But Mrs. Taub—we’re not free. We’re four.”
At the time, we were carpooling to preschool with the daughter of the local Baptist minister. The next day, he told me his child had burst into tears after my daughter spent the entire drive home describing her eight nights of presents, and how her family got to gamble with their dreidels for gold-covered chocolate gelt. “Why can’t we be Jewish?” wailed the minister’s daughter. “Thanks a lot,” her father told me.
So—what’s YOUR favorite bagel?
Try Dori Walker’s recipe from her upcoming cookbook, The Plate Is My Canvas: Recipes and Stories from My Family’s Interfaith Kitchen, and the answer might be—YOUR OWN!