A friend from New York sent my husband and me a surprise package of three dozen bagels from Zabar’s last week. One dozen plain, one dozen poppy seed, one dozen sesame. He’s a lovely person, and this was a characteristically sweet gesture, but I was caught off guard by how violently grateful I was for his gift, the wild longing it inspired in me for home.
The bagels took on a talismanic quality as I lovingly arranged them in specially bought Ziploc bags and placed them in the best spot of the freezer, with as much care as if I were tucking them tenderly into a first-class berth for a transatlantic voyage. Then I sat down and read about four times the Zabars catalog that came with the order, wondering if $319 was too much to spend on a gift basket of deli meats and appetizing. For myself. A week later, I’m still seriously considering it.
Los Angeles, for all the wonderful things its culinary community has managed to do with kale and goji berries (and even some other foods that don’t make you want to die inside), has never been known for its bagels. There are various explanations as to why—there’s something missing in the water, or perhaps bagelsmiths lack the proper equipment or technique—but I think the explanation is simpler than that: In a city that relies on the widespread terror of carbs/gluten as much as it does on gasoline, there is simply not a strong enough demand to develop a thriving culture of these chewy, carby, gluten balls. Sure, we had the cupcake thing. But cupcakes are cute, colorful, and photogenic. You can hold one at a party or on the pages of a supermarket tabloid and look like a fun, playful girl who eats, without ever taking more than a single bite. Bagels are different. Bagels are real food.
For a long time—at least two decades of my life, I’d say—my relationship with bagels was similarly fraught. When I was growing up female and weight-conscious in the Atkins-mad 90’s, bagels were the ultimate “naughty” food—calorically dense, nutritionally neutral (at best), and guaranteed to make you fat and disgusting. When I first started to aggressively—and dangerously—starve myself in college, they were the first food to go and the last to return, once I slowly, painfully started eating again. Even now, eating a bagel is never a neutral proposition. It’s a splurge, a treat, a furtive indulgence in the way that a dinner roll or a slab of pita bread can never be. When eaten in morning (one must never, ever in the afternoon or evening—it’s etiquette), it must be meticulously accounted for in the food choices of the rest of the day. You can’t, for example have a bagel for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch. You can’t have a bagel at lunch and pizza for dinner. Even if you use the fat-free cream cheese. Even if—as I once read in a magazine breakfast interview with Jennifer Aniston—you hollow it out into a flaccid shell. You just can’t have all that bread.
I was well aware of my bagel issues, but it wasn’t until the care package from Zabar’s that I had a mini-revelation: My relationship to bagels, through the years, is virtually identical to my relationship to my Jewish identity. Ubiquitous and taken for granted in my youth. Burdensome, unlovely, and often embarrassing in my adolescence and early adulthood. Now it’s mostly a non-issue, which I mostly ignore except when I feel compelled to engage. Yet I know that if I found myself in a place where it didn’t exist at all, I’d be sad. If I couldn’t access it, or if it was gone forever, I’d miss it terribly.
That’s a lot of feelings to project on a little ring of boiled dough, and maybe that’s why the bagel is such a potent symbol of secular Jewish identity. It’s a litmus test of how we feel about ourselves at any given moment. But we love them anyway.
We may never make our way through the cache of bagels in that corner of the freezer, but there’s a little part of me that feels so relieved to know that they’re there, just in case we need them. As for the $319 Zabar’s gift basket, I’m not so sure we need it. After all, we have pastrami in L.A.
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