As the summer solstice gets under way, sounds of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth can be heard all over Manhattan’s West Side. There are two causes: the precipitous decline of President Obama in the polls, and, more poignantly, H&H Bagels’ closing of its doors. The iconic shop for the iconic carbohydrate had been in business since 1972. But in recent years, it suffered financial difficulties; the company that owned and operated H&H filed for bankruptcy back in February.
Yet reality is a stranger to the West Side. No matter how dire the reports in the Wall Street Journal, residents confidently expected that the emporium on 80th Street and Broadway would find a way to keep going. How could such an historic institution close? After all, wasn’t it featured in Sex and the City, Friends, and How I Met Your Mother?
In fact, there’s little reason to mourn. For all the claims of H&H fans, many believe that better bagels can be had in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and other parts of Manhattan—and even in other regions of the country. Indeed, bagel shops today thrive in Oregon, Texas, Indiana, South Carolina, and most of the other contiguous states, and patrons will take oaths that their bagels are the tastiest in the world. Few other foodstuffs can claim such ferocious loyalty. Not a bad record for a humble little item, born more than 400 years ago.
Historians trace the bagel’s origins to Krakow, Poland. There, in 1610, it was created as a Jewish version of the bublic, a small, slender bread designed for Lent. The holey product immediately caught on in shtetls. A few years later, peddlers put bajgels on a stick and hawked them on the main streets of Polish towns and cities. By the end of the century, their wares had become a vital part of the national diet.
Jewish bakers brought the recipe to the New World in the nineteenth century and immediately found a market. Thousands of their coreligionists had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and hungered for the foods of home. For decades, the immigrants, their children, and their children’s children bought bagels made under strict supervision—not by rabbis, but by the members of Bagel Bakers Local 338, which had contracts with New York City’s major bakeries. There were usually four bagelers on duty: two to make and knead the bagels, one to bake them, and one to put them in boiling water, plucking them out at the perfect moment. (This was no union featherbedding arrangement; the professionals earned minimal salaries and were expected to fill 100 boxes a night. Each box contained 64 handmade bagels.)
The early 1960s saw new developments, which purists still regard as culinary travesties on the order of the TV dinner and light beer. A machine was developed capable of producing 400 bagels in an hour. Next came Lender’s featureless frozen bagels, sold in supermarkets across the country. The old-fashioned handmade bagels, with their tooth-resistant texture and unique flavor, seemed to be a thing of the past—especially after the introduction of bagels embedded with everything from sun-dried tomatoes to chocolate chips. The coup de grâce was seemingly administered when green bagels appeared on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Yet true believers would not be discouraged. They continued to demand the real thing, and certain establishments, H&H among them, were happy to satisfy their appetites. But it was never the only bageleria in town, and despite the lamentations, others will rise to take its place. West Siders take note: presidents come and go, and businesses rise, flourish, and fall. But the true bagel, like the genuine diamond, is forever.