Right off the top, those crowded into the Museum of Jewish Montreal’s (MJM) funky new digs in Mile End were put on notice that they were there for “a celebration not a competition.”
A Tale of Two Bagels: Tasting Montreal and New York’s Best was touted as a friendly consideration of the merits of each city’s wares. But these Montrealers who queued around the block before the doors opened and paid the $10 admission for a nosh, could not hide their partisanship.
A whoop went up every time food historians Kat Romanow and Sari Kamin hinted Montreal’s might be more authentic, closer to the bread rings Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought to these shores.
To be fair, the New York side was outgunned: Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, which chef Peter Shelsky opened to produce a smaller, chewier bagel closer to the original than New York’s typical bigger, fluffier version, was the sole entry.
Shelsky’s has been rated among the best in New York, quite a feat in a city which, by Kamin’s estimate, has “billions” of bagel outlets.
In the opposing corner were two formidable Montreal icons: Fairmount Bagel, the first bakery of its kind here, opened in 1919, and the almost as venerable St. Viateur Bagel, as well as newcomer, Bagels Le Trou.
Proving you don’t have to be Jewish to get into the business, owner Alexandra Grenier opened Trou in Griffintown during the pandemic using her own recipe. The shop’s slogan is C’est le trou qui fait le bagel, (It’s the hole that makes the bagel). So far, bagel is a word that has been spared by the Office québécoise de la langue française.
The event was the sequel to one held in New York last month cheekily entitled Down the Bagel Hole: A Celebration of Jewish Breadways, a pricier inter-city matchup (US $40) held at Gertie, a hip “Jew-ish diner.”
Defending Montreal’s honour was a local outfit, Black Seeds Bagels, owned by Noah Bernamoff who claims to emulate his native city’s way of doing things.
Both bagel-offs were organized by Booklyn-based The Neighborhood: An Urban Center for Jewish Life and the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD), with MJM.
“Montreal and New York are known for their countless contributions to Jewish food and culture,” explained MJM executive director Zev Moses. “Their bagels—though sometimes a point of competition between the two cities—stand out as delicious symbols for generations of Jewish migration, settlement, and imagination.
“A Tale of Two Bagels is an opportunity to learn about, explore, and, most importantly, to sink our teeth into the legacy of the bagel as it relates to each city’s Jewish cultural and culinary identity.”
Kamin, public programs director at MOFAD, and The Wandering Chew co-founder Romanow, former food programming director at MJM, gave an overview of the centuries-old history of doughnut-shaped bread that Jews may not have originated but certainly marketed brilliantly.
The best Montreal bagel makers still hand roll the dough and boil it in honeyed water before baking in a wood-fired oven, while most of their New York counterparts, who got started earlier, in the mid-1800s, have long opted for mechanized rolling, salting, cold-fermenting, and baking in a gas oven, Kamin and Romanow told the audience.
What makes New York’s special, according to Kamin, is the water. “The city may be filthy, but our water is pristine.”
Fairmount Bagel owner Irving Shlafman’s grandfather, Isadore, opened his first shop in a St. Laurent Boulevard alley before moving to the present hole-in-the wall on Fairmount Avenue in 1949. It remains faithful to his family’s way of making bagels brought over from Ukraine, he said, that is, not so dense that they lay in your stomach like a stone, but not so airy that you feel you have eaten nothing. Their bakers roll an average 750 bagels an hour, he said.
Each city has a “bagel culture”. While Montrealers are more traditional in bagel flavours and shmears, every imaginable type of bagel can be found in the Big Apple, said Kamin, including a Chinese eatery’s Szechuan take.
However, New Yorkers were scandalized when actress Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) during her 2018 bid for state governor ordered at Zabar’s lox, cream cheese, tomato and onions on a cinnamon raisin bagel.
That sucré-salé combo would not shock Quebecers though.
Joining the bakers was Zaidies, opened in December by young entrepreneur Jake Greenberg to sell salmon smoked using his father’s coveted method. In the 1980s, his father Les and uncle Nel owned a restaurant called Zaidies in the former Rabiner’s Hotel in Ste. Agathe, a favourite holiday destination for Jewish Montrealers.
For something completely off-beat, the frozen dessert shop Les Givrés was offering samples of its bagel ice cream, a concoction of vanilla ice cream, cream cheese, strawberry jam and bagel chips—made from scratch. “It’s a good seller, but not the most popular of our 36 flavours,” said co-owner François Berthiaume.
The evening was capped with a ditty by Ryan Stotland and Greg Halpin that had the chorus, “New York bagels are savoury, Montreal bagels are sweet/Nobody knows how it happened that way/It all started with water and wheat.”