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It’s OK to Admit It: Montreal Can Make a Bagel

Salvos in the bagel wars are being fired at the wrong targets

Adam Chandler
December 03, 2013
St. Viateur Bagel in Montreal(Adam Chandler)
St. Viateur Bagel in Montreal(Adam Chandler)

Bagels, my friends, are not just sustenance. Apricots are sustenance. Granola is sustenance. A turkey burger is sustenance. But a bagel, no. A bagel is a sunrise. It is a cosmic pat on the shoulder. When Walt Whitman wrote about the atmosphere in “Song of Myself,” he was talking about bagels.

The atmosphere bagel is not a perfume….it has no taste of the distillation…. it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever…. I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

Friends, the bagel is a 16th-century innovation that we still consume today with the same mouth-agape astonishment that our forebears in Central Europe did. The bagel may be 100 years younger than the printing press, but when future generations absorb the history of the world, whether it’s beamed to them or droned by Amazon or whatever, Johannes Gutenberg will line the floors of the academic birdcages and the spirit of the Central European peasants that made bagel from bread will remain cherished. (You want a redemption story about a bagel? Here’s one.)

Over the weekend, I visited Montreal because people keep saying there are bagels in Montreal. They don’t whisper it, in those hushed tones of reverence that people dispatch when they talk about their cats, they say it with a prod of insouciance. So Montreal thinks it’s got some bagels, does it?

On it goes: Can you buy them from vendors on the streets of Montreal? Even though you never wait in line for anything in this world anymore, would you stand in a line for ten minutes on a weekend day for a bagel in Montreal? Has a Canuck ever fiended for one of their bagels so badly that they sprinted to the nearest corner and, with drool pooling at the corners of one’s mouth, watched as a deli chef smashed the bagel into a greasy grill without compunction, covered it with plastic American cheese and dropped runny, half-scrambled eggs (from chickens that were not given even one consideration in life) atop it? Despite the gastrointestinal fireworks that ensued, would you have proudly made the same decision again?

Some people, certainly not me, are passionate about bagels. So when I went to St. Viateur, one of Montreal’s most famous bagel proprietors, I did not cheat on the New York bagel in Montreal. I went to visit the New York bagel’s family. I wanted to get to know it better.

And you know what? They’re not so bad! Denser, smaller (for sure!), sweeter (from being boiled in water and honey), I ate two without putting anything on it. Would I do it everyday? Probably not. But if it was all from which I had to choose, I could make do. For not wholly renouncing the Montreal bagel, I am sure I will face derision from my peers. But the truth is that there shouldn’t be enmity between Canuck and Yankee over the differences between their bagels. We should be joining forces to fight those sinister souls who are trying to make the world less safe for gluten.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.