James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

New Yorkers Will Never Stop Talking About What Defines a Bagel, Ever

New Yorkers Will Never Stop Talking About What Defines a Bagel, Ever

Salt Beef Bagels in London

“They spelled ‘bagel’ wrong. Who spells it B-E-I-G-E-L? It’s B-A-G-E-L. With an A.”

“Maybe that’s just how they spell it here.”

“But it’s wrong.”

“Whatever. Are you hungry or not?”

“Fine.”

It was just past 1 am in the East End of London. My companions and I were looking to rid ourselves of the taste of watered-down whisky and cheap tequila, but this was proving harder than anticipated. The thing they don’t tell you about London is that things close early, so our options were limited. This is how I found myself reluctantly standing inside of a 24/7 bagel shop in Brick Lane called Beigel Bake.

My parents, first-generation immigrants to New York City, didn’t grow up eating bagels. There was never any tradition passed down about how or when they should be eaten. I had to set my own norms. Over the years I always asked for bagels on the morning of family gatherings and special occasions. My father or uncle would come back with a dozen bagels with all types of flavors and spreads: plain, raisin, sesame seed, poppy seed, with cream cheese, butter, whitefish salad, lox and capers, or bacon and eggs. The bagel breakfast always preceded a long day of celebration: Christmas, birthday mornings, graduations or the birth of new family members. I grew to equate bagel breakfasts with joyous, festive occasions that added to the fabric of home.

As for the bagel itself, a true New York bagel has a crusty exterior that crackles ever so slightly when you bite into it, while the interior is doughy but doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth. Its shape is solidly round with a wide enough circumference and hole in the middle that when the deli lathers it with cream cheese it comes spilling out of all crevices. My bagel is always an “everything” bagel—one coated with sesame, poppy, caraway, onion, and garlic—with cream cheese.

So it was here in London that I watched the woman behind the counter in Beigel Bake slice open a comically tiny bagel with no regard for its form and integrity, fist a handful of beef strips into its cavity, hurl a spoonful of yellow mustard in it, slam the top back down, wrap it in brown paper and slide it across to me.

Beef? Mustard? No “everything” bagels? My life was spinning out of control. I’ve had my fair share of bad bagels around the world, but what London had done to my beloved New York breakfast staple was borderline heretical. Who is this woman and how could she do such blasphemous things? Who was I for watching her commit these sins and not objecting?

I was dumbfounded, holding a comically tiny plain bagel stuffed with jagged slabs of hot salt beef and a smear of yellow mustard, standing outside the shop where they misspelled “bagel,” in a city where things close early. I cringed and took my first bite.

There are times in life when you have to admit that maybe the world knows better than you. This is one of those times. That woman behind the counter is my new hero. The hot salt beef “beigel” was thoroughly delicious. It has destroyed any notion about what I thought a bagel was meant to be, so much so that I bought a second one for breakfast the following morning, even if they do spell it wrong.

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