James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Bagels Are the Best Cultural Unifier Ever

Bagels Are the Best Cultural Unifier Ever

Bagels in Toronto

I eat at least half a toasted bagel every single day. It is my lifeblood. It is my heritage. It’s usually my breakfast.

There are many Jewish dairy restaurants in my hometown of Toronto that specialize in baked goods like bagels, challah, babka, and the rest of it. Back at the turn of the 20th century, when boatloads of observant Jews were arriving from Europe to escape persecution, dairy meant kosher and kosher meant home. United Bakers, founded in 1912, is still thriving, while Harbord Bakery has been baking the world’s best challah and cheese danishes since 1945. The city also has countless dedicated bagel spots, from Gryfe’s to Bagel World to Bagel House to the new pisher, Nu Bagel in Kensington Market, where Toronto’s Jewry first laid roots.

In the mid-1990s I was attending school in Halifax, Nova Scotia for a journalism degree, along with a tight class of about 36 students. Mike*, a nice guy from Newfoundland, was one of them, and Dave, an even nicer guy from a Toronto suburb, was another.

I didn’t eat pepperoni pizza and that’s what the gang always ordered, so Dave, who I believe was secretly in love with me, always had a bagel and mini packet of spreadable cream cheese on hand for me in his dorm room. One evening a bunch of us were gathered at Dave’s for an impromptu post-exams pizza party, Dave dutifully preparing my bagel and schmear, when suddenly from across the room, Mike shouted, “A bagel, Amy. That seems like something a Jew would eat.”

There were 15 people crammed into that double dorm room, scarfing down party-sized pepperoni pizzas and beer, yet if ever you wanted to hear a pin drop, this would have been the time. My response? “Gosh, Mike, that seems like something an anti-Semite would say.” (Nailed it!)

But understand this: Mike wasn’t anti-Semitic; he was ignorant. He apologized profusely, we hugged it out, and I continued eating my perfectly toasted bagel.

Bagels unify us, their doughy circles linking Jews like a chain-link fence across the Diaspora. My friend Ilona, who is not Jewish, is fascinated by Jewish food customs, or should I say, the lack thereof. I would go to a bar mitzvah brunch and she’d ask, “What did they serve?”

“Bagels, lox, cream cheese, tuna, and egg,” I’d say.

I’d go to a bris. “What did they serve?” she’d ask.

“Bagels, lox, cream cheese, tuna, and egg,” I’d say.

I’d go to a shiva. “What did they serve?” she’d ask.

After a while she just stopped asking.

But here’s the thing: A fresh bagel is so delicious and comforting that it never gets stale. Yet there’s always room for improvement and I’ve found it at Schmaltz Appetizing in Toronto, a newish grab-and-go noshery specializing in smoked fish and other bagel fixin’s. This is a photo of their Chub Chub: smoked Great Lakes whitefish, beet-marinated East Coast gravlax, dilled baby cucumber salad, and whipped Quebec cream cheese hit with horseradish, all on a Kiva’s (since 1979) poppy seed bagel.

For me, it’s the Chosen One.

*Names have been changed so that people don’t get mad at me.

Up Next

Canadian Rum: It’s a Thing

Featured City Guides