Real New Yorkers Don't Toast Bagels
An essay on bagel toasting and interviews with prominent bagelers about bagels, bialys, best bagel flavors, and the answer to the eternal question: to toast?
Toasting. A highpoint of civilization.
Think about it — fire plus the greatest thing since, sliced bread. You take something perfect — bread in all its forms — born of cultures geographic and microscopic, a food that can be transported, used as a vehicle for flavor, meal, and plate-cleaning device, a food that even spoiled, hard like a rock, can still be used. You take this divine gift, a thing that falls from the sky in religious texts, and you apply another divine power to it: fire.
To oven-fresh bread toasting gives texture. In ‘fresh’ bread (fresh bread that’s no longer warm) it rekindles a hint of that nature from its moment of inception — warmth, chewiness, with steam wisping up from the torn, stretched inside. To commercial sliced bread, toasting gives nuance or its appearance. And with toasting comes that treasured trait, caramelization. Toasting lends the complexities that the most seasoned lovers of bread, pizza, pretzels, bagels, and pastries wax poetic about and argue: “It’s charred!” one says. “Are you mad? It’s burned!” another cries.
Brown, tan, black, sepia, and shades in between — consider the flavors and textures that can be paired with the world's many breads. Untoasted bread? Why! How bland? Have you no personality? No wish for nuance? No need to make your mark on the artisan’s handiwork? Do you lack will, confidence, decisiveness… purpose? Don’t you know what fire does to bread? Are you not transformed by what heat and texture does to butter and other spreads? Think of how it slightly warms jelly! Melts cream cheese. Consider the grilled cheese! The hamburger! Will you give up your toasted bun? Are you… a non-toast terrorist?
Toast! Ah! The Wonder! The Joy! The…
Stop. Just stop. Stop talking. I can’t take it.
Heresy. Sacrilege. Travesty. It's an outright wrong and a burning at the stake. I’ve mulled over this for years. I just can’t swallow the argument in favor of toasting. Toasting is wrong! Wait, a clarification. There is room for toast: for those who know no better, for those who cannot afford fresh bread (though bread’s pretty cheap) or the time to procure it, and as a component in some meals — a cooking method that betters the original dish. A grilled cheese, a lightly toasted hamburger bun, and yes, a Cuban.
I beseech you, do not misunderstand. In those cases toasting is necessary. And culturally, the chrome toaster may be as American as apple pie. Consider Mom or Dad rushing out the door in a commercial, toast in hand. Or a Rube Goldberg machine relying on a toaster to send crusty fare flying upward in some crazy Warner Bros. cartoon. But just as there is room for toast, there is a toast-free zone. That place, my friend, that place, is the bagel.
I was born in Queens in 1976 and raised for eight years in a predominantly Jewish town called Merrick on Long Island's South Shore. It is just a 45-minute ride to the City on the Long Island Railroad. It was there I remember having my bagel cognition moment (a corollary to the theory of pizza cognition, which states that your earliest bagel experiences form how you see bagels for life). I was even, as a Little Leaguer, a bewildered outfielder on none other than Merrick's Bagel City Mets (I'm a Yankees fan). Let me tell you, in that era before food fetishization über alles, we never, ever, in any bagel place, ever ate a toasted bagel.