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If you chopped my arm off with an axe, you might be surprised to see that the stump that remained had a giant hole in it. That’s because my body is made of bagels. I am 70 percent water, 30 percent bagels. No week passes in my life without the consumption of at least one or more bagels. If I go for more than a week without a bagel, my hair falls out, my eyes turn black, and I start chanting strange Kabbalic verses that’d make Madonna’s head spin. Luckily, I live in New York City, so unless someone kidnaps me and ties me to a chair and feeds me a constant stream of ham and mayonnaise to un-Jew me, I will never be without a bagel. And thank God, because bagels are my favorite day food. (As opposed to my favorite night food, which is pasta. But that’s another subject.)
Bagels come in all shapes and sizes, flavors and textures. The way Italians feel about the right pasta with the right dressing is how Jews feel about the right bagel with the right cream cheese. Pumpernickel, onion, and everything are all the perfect vehicles for the classic combination of cream cheese, lox (or nova) with onions, tomato, and capers. In fact, many bagel establishments offer this very combination with the expectation that you won’t ask for this with something as ill-fitting as a cinnamon-raisin bagel. Anyone who eats lox on a cinnamon-raisin bagel is arousing the wrath of the vengeful Hebrew God who may not only smite you but force you to spend your afterlife performing, in perpetuity, the bottle dance from Fiddler on the Roof for audiences of angry geriatrics who think they’re going to see Neil Sedaka.
There is a good rule of thumb when it comes to choosing your bagel and cream cheese combo: The worse your breath will be afterwards, the better it will taste. So garlic bagel with chive spread? Check. But sesame bagel with plain cream cheese? Or worse: low-fat cream cheese? Look, if that’s you, I know who you are. You thought The Lake House was the best movie of 2006, and your cell phone ring is "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas. Not that I’m judging you, or anything. What we put on our bagels is a private matter, unless we make it public. Then you open yourself up to scrutiny.
I’m thinking of the girl who sat in front of me in my law school torts class who would come to class every day with a plain bagel and a bottle of (wait for it, wait for it) I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray. She would tear off a piece of bagel and spritz fake butter on it, eating it that way for the duration of class. If I was unsure about law school and convinced I’d made a bad choice, this sealed the deal. I saw my future in each chemical-drenched bite of bagel.
Of course, I’m Newt Gingriching myself into a corner. I have a bagel secret, an ugly bagel secret that I need to get off my chest or my entire career as a bagel guru will be called into question. During this law school period, when I mentally attacked the girl who sat in front of me, I was sneaking off after class and getting my fix at (wait for itno, don’t wait for it, it’s too horrible! Run while you can!): Dunkin' Donuts.
[Car screeches to a halt. Passengers exit violently, clawing their way to the hills. Driver sits pensively and begins sobbing like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights.]
Look, I had my reasons. I was in Atlanta, and there was only one decent bagel place near my schoolBagel Palace, I think it was calledand it was OK, the bagels were pretty good, but it was waitress-service-only and I needed my bagel fix fast and easy. Dunkin’ Donuts had bagels that could be toasted in a matter of seconds, and, not only that, they came with coffee and, if I was feeling decadent (and I was always feeling decadent), I’d order a doughnut for dessert. This was a rough period for me, an ugly period, my Picasso blue period. If you charted my life with bagels, this would be my lowest moment. And I tell you this now so you can see me for the human that I am, not some deity who floats around taunting lesser beings for bad bagel habits.
Now that I live in New York, though, I am reclaiming my divinity as I sate my various bagel cravings. The best bagels I’ve discovered are at Murray's Bagels both on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea and Sixth Avenue on the Chelsea-Village border. I discovered it in a New York magazine piece in which celebrity chefs revealed their favorite New York nosh spots, and Jonathan Benno, the highbrow chef from Per Se, disclosed that his favorite bagel fix was to be had at Murray’s.
Subsequently, I’ve been to Murray’s 8,000 times. The most peculiar thing about Murray’s is its refusal to toast bagels, despite the fact that at least 40 percent of people who approach the counter want their bagels toasted. “Sorry,” say the assertive men who work behind the counter (no women work behind the counter at Murray’s, a curious fact), “we don’t toast our bagels.”
The idea behind this must be that the bagels are so fresh that they don’t need to be toasted. And mostly this is true: I’ve had some of the best, freshest, hottest bagels of my life at Murray’s. But also, surprisingly, I’ve had some of the worst. Those bad ones are the overcooked, overly stale ones that hide at the bottom of the bagel bin, sneaking their way on to your plate without any hint of their teeth-breaking criminal intentions.
I’ve discovered a way around this, though. When you go to Murray’s and ask for a bagel, ask for a soft bagel. It may feel strange to say it, but these guys will respect you for it. If they ask any questions, just say you've had some dental work done. A soft onion bagel from Murray’s with nova spread, onion, tomato, and capers is a taste of heaven. It’s one of those sublimely perfect combinations that make us here on earth feel that there must be an order to things, a system and a design to our place in the universe.
Bagels tell us who we are, who we were, and who we’ll be as we grow older. Their oracular qualities are echoed in their O-like shapea giant circle that suggests the cyclical nature of things. If you feel directionless, empty, searching for an answer, forget religion: Go to the bagel. It’s a simple formula that works wonders—change your bagel and change your life.
About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.