In the beginning, there was Bruegger’s. Prior to Bruegger’s, I have vague recollections of Lucky Charms, eggs, or, on rare occasions, stacks of pancakes. The recollections are vague because I was very young but also because bagels came in like a blitzkrieg and annihilated all other breakfasts in one fell swoop. Once Bruegger’s opened up in West Concord it was all over. The Tzelnics have been a bagel family ever since.
Bruegger’s boiled their bagels in a large vat behind a window to the kitchen. It steamed like a witch’s cauldron roiling with culinary sorcery, culminating in round orbs of deliciously seedy dough. They had a “Hot!” sign that hung over the recently cooked batches so you could scoop them up fresh. Getting out of the car on frigid New England mornings and dashing across the parking lot was an ordeal endured only with the knowledge that on the ride home I’d be scalded by the bag of “Hot!” bagels on my lap. My family began to consume them with the dedicated consistency of the believer. Or the addict.
When Bruegger’s closed up shop, Dunkin’ Donuts moved in. It was a frightful time of bagel uncertainty. The Dunkin’ bagels were different. The seeds were exclusively on the top half of the bagel, leaving half of one’s breakfast inferior to the other. This issue was partialy alleviated by taking all the seeds that had fallen off the top half of the bagel, and sprinkling them on the cream cheese on the barren half. This provided more flavor to the underseeded half, while also creating a fascinating texture: a little crisp on top of the cream. The seeds left in the bread basket became a valuable commodity, so the Tzelnics began to engage in a seedshare. Hogging all the seeds was a grave faux pas.
The Dunkin’ bagels were passable while they were still made on site. When they began to outsource production, it was time to find our fix elsewhere. After a search that I can only imagine was far and wide, my parents discovered Iggy’s Bagels, available at the Concord Cheese Shop. Cooked to a golden brown and covered generously with seeds, they were far superior to any bagel we’d previously tried. We stored them in the freezer and, when popped in the toaster oven, they emerged crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle.
The switch to Iggy’s had the tangential benefit of solidifying our choice of cream cheese. Like any newcomer to bageldom, we’d tried it all: onion and chive, regular, and a garden vegetable cream cheese that turned the cheese around the vegetables off-putting colors, like cereal disintegrating in milk. But at the Cheese Shop we found a cream cheese so pure and spreadable that using any other felt like a senseless regression. Zausner’s Whipped Cream Cheese smeared effortlessly onto the warm dough, filling in all nooks and most crannies. After several years of experimentation, we’d hit our stride.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t brief dalliances with other bagels. My mom has been a Zen practitioner for nearly as long as we’ve been eating bagels. (I’m not sure if there is a connection there, but both bagels and Zen feature emptiness as a core tenet.) She found a teacher at the Zen Center of Ottawa, and has been making several trips a year to the center for as long as I can remember. There is a bagel shop nearby that sells Montreal-style bagels, and occasionally she brings some back.
The Montreal bagels are thinner, with a dense and sweet dough. My parents love them. They say these bagels remind them of a type of bread they ate during their youth in Romania, which was also dense and sweet. I tried to love them, too. The Tzelnic bagel machine is a single-minded force of which I did not want to be a dissenter. But after faking it for awhile, I finally had the courage to admit I did not like the Montreal bagels. Looking back, this moment seems like a rebellion perhaps not quite on the level of getting a tattoo, but not far from it either.
There was also the dreaded wheat bagel phase. It is said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and so I feel obligated to mention this phase. To not eat ourselves to death, the Tzelnics dabbled in wheat. Thus, when I was in high school, my dad and I suffered through these chewy monstrosities, swallowing with self-congratulatory disgust. I even took to ripping out much of the doughy interior of the bagel, turning it into a glorified pretzel. The rest of the family followed suit, and so the bread basket began to fill up with the rolled up dough of our bagels, like the entrails of a slain beast. If you were still hungry after eating the crust of the bagel, you could grab a piece of rolled dough, place a dollop of cream cheese on top, and enjoy a homemade bagel bite.
This phase laid bare our psyches: though I was always stick thin, my conscience demanded I go on this health trip. Since my dad wasn’t thin – stick or otherwise – he too made a concerted effort to reduce calories, using Splenda in his tea as well. But though my mom opted for Splenda, she would not give up the joy of the everything bagel. Everything bagels every morning for breakfast might shorten your life, but what would life be without everything bagels every morning for breakfast? No life at all, my dad and I ultimately decided. My sister, off at college, was spared this existential dilemma.
It would be natural to assume that, as a Jewish family, bagels were a tradition passed down through the decades, enjoyed by my grandparents and their parents before them. Growing up in communist Romania, however, didn’t give my parents much room for religious expression (or breakfast expression, for that matter). They emigrated to Israel in the 1970s and were married there, but Judaism has never been a large part of their lives.
When they emigrated to America in 1979, my parents went to Philadelphia and stayed for a few weeks with a Romanian friend who had married an American named Richard. In an effort to be a welcoming and culturally-conscious host, Richard said, “We have to take you out for bagels and lox!”
“What are those?” my dad asked.
Many thousands of bagels later, I’ve arrived at something of an answer. For the Tzelnics, bagels are our axis mundi, the pole around which we rotate, the pillar that supports us. They have sustained us over the years and have caused us to gather and commune in a way that no religion ever could. Everything bagels are everything to us.
As with any tradition, over the years patterns emerge, some intentional, some not. Mark Twain said, “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” This makes our bagel routine about as ironclad as they come.
On the weekends, we eat our bagels with red onions and lox. The onions are absent during the week due to breath considerations. As I got older, the onions became a frustrating tell: if I passed on the onions on a Saturday, my mom would know, with conspiratorial delight, that I was up to something later: going to a party or talking to girls, fresh breath a priority over flavor.
Everyone receives their own knife for the cream cheese. If you pass your own knife along with the cream cheese, you will receive a stern look from my dad. The lox can be taken by hand, or with a knife, however if there is already cream cheese on the knife do not dream of putting it into contact with the lox. Don’t hog the cream cheese. Take a couple globs and pass it along, we’re all hungry here.
But most importantly, rejoice in this tradition. Break bread with us.
In the beginning, there was a device we called the “guillotine.” The bagel was placed in the lower half of the device. The top half had a serrated blade which was lowered, slicing the bagel in a delightfully gruesome manner. We used the guillotine on the Bruegger’s bagels, and it worked well for awhile. But after years of use, the guillotine dulled and the result was a still-gruesome but less-satisfying squish of the bagel. The collateral damage in the squishing process were the valued seeds, and so the guillotine was abandoned for the Shogun Steak Killer: a knife that has been successfully cutting our bagels for over a decade and has the words “Steak Killer” inscribed on the blade. We’ve traded one form of savagery for another.
A few months after my sister’s wedding, her in-laws (who by that time had been over for bagels many times) gifted my parents a new bagel knife. It is a Cutco knife with the inscription “Bagels @ the Tzelnics” on the blade. It was a very thoughtful gift.
Not long after getting the knife, my dad used it to cut a slice of bread. The bread was in his hand. Unused to the awesome power of a Cutco, he sliced right through the bread and then right through his thumb. Twelve stitches later, he returned home without any feeling on one side of his hand. Bagels are not so slowly killing my family.
Each morning at the school where I work, a smell wafts through the building and everyone knows Alex is heating up his bagel. I can’t seem to shake the routine, the comfort that comes from a crispy, doughy circle of carbohydrates. I like my bagels well done, so if you smell something burning, it’s just my bagel. Once, however, I left a bagel in the toaster oven too long and arrived in the kitchen to find that the burning smell was my bagel in flames. I blew it out and removed the charred carcass. It was carbonized and a bit too crunchy, but still better than a Montreal bagel.
My parents moved to Cambridge a couple of years ago, and are now within two miles of Iggy’s headquarters. We live in a prosperous time, a pax bagela. My wife and I recently discovered a bagel pop-up called Better Bagels. It turns out they make the best bagels I’ve ever had. The bagels are miniature cannonballs, so dense, seed-drenched, and flavorful that the second time we found the pop-up I bought 36 (including a dozen for my parents). The founders told me they are a New York-style bagel, and to me, they are the holy grail of the genre. I suspect that my parents, despite their praise for this new brand, prefer Iggy’s. They’ve knelt at the altar of Iggy’s too many times to convert so casually.
My dad just turned 70. It’s hard to say how many more years of bagels at the Tzelnics there will be. I understand that one day my parents will no longer have us over for bagels. By “understand,” I mean that I can intellectually grasp this fact, even if I can’t begin to spiritually and emotionally. Luckily, my parents have passed on a spiritual, emotional, and edible tool for coping. When the unthinkable happens, and I’m overcome with grief and emptiness, I’ll at least have the means to fill myself up again. I know of no other tradition that is so figuratively and literally sustaining. I know of no other breakfast that is so holy.
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