By Carly Goodman
Watching Larry Rosenblum hold court in front of a crowd, it is easy to believe that he once ran a NASCAR track in North Carolina. Now back in his hometown of Philadelphia, Rosenblum is one of the proprietors of Spread Bagelry, Philly’s best and only source of Montreal-style bagels, and a new Center City staple. As Rosenblum, a warm storyteller and host, explained to a standing-room-only crowd of bagel enthusiasts at the rescheduled bagel making event the evening of November 13, 2012, a Montreal-style bagel is more than just round circular bread.
Would-be bagel makers munched happily on bagels while the team at Spread Bagelry explained the basic components that make a Montreal bagel: flour, eggs, canola oil, a little sugar, yeast and malt, a dash of salt. While the recipe remains top secret, the bagel is more than the sum of its parts. Each one much be hand-rolled, boiled in honey water, and baked in a specially built, wood-burning oven. This process produces bagels that are slightly sweeter, crustier, and lighter than their counterparts in New York.
New York bagels emerged, in the evening’s presentation, as the foil to the Montreal-style bagel. While Rosenblum emphasized the Old World provenance of all New World bagels, New York, it seems, lost its connection to the bagel’s traditional yet (sesame?) seedy roots among Jews in Eastern Europe, where gangsters ran the bagel trade and bagel-peddling was a job of last resort. While New Yorkers changed their bagel recipes, opting for a less-sweet bagel, and adopted new technologies like machine-rolled bagels and steam ovens, Montrealers as Rosenblum tells it, retained their dedication to tradition and their claim to the most authentic bagels.
When somebody makes a claim about a food’s authenticity, my ears perk up, as should those of any regular reader of this blog. What does authenticity mean? And why is it so valuable? Is the most authentic bagel the one that most resembles the bagels on the shtetl? Or the one with the closest ties to Montreal’s boulangeries? Should it be served in Yiddish or French? What marks the bagel’s authenticity – its ingredients, the cooking process, the identity of the bakers and proprietors, or the feeling of the store where you buy it?
One of the Spread crew’s favorite things about running this business is the way their doors open to a diverse and cosmopolitan crowd of Center City regulars and others who come from the Main Line, South Jersey, and all over to try their bagels. Young and old, Jewish and not Jewish, customers come to Spread for a kind of neighborhood authenticity as well as artisanal bagels. Kind of like, as one guest at the event suggested, the bar at Cheers.
When you bite into a Spread bagel, topped maybe with applewood-smoked bacon and washed down with a BYOV Bloody Mary at a Sunday brunch, are you eschewing tradition or embracing it? (The V stands for vodka, of course.)
Audience members at the bagel making event had a chance to roll out their own bagels with varying success. The lack of uniformity in size and shape of our experimental bagels should signal a kind of hand-made improvised authenticity, right? That’s what I’m going with. They still tasted good, anyway.
For more on the history of the bagel in Montreal, check out this short documentary, “La guerre des bagels,” (it is in French).
Carly Goodman is a graduate student at Temple and a friend of the What Is Your Food Worth blog and project.