By Ben Adler
Getting a decent bagel with the right thing on it is way too much of a hassle these days. For as long as I can remember, bagel places — even in New York! — put too much cream cheese on your bagel. The middle of it would be cold, right out of the fridge. You think that’s what I want?
Time once was, though, that in New York you could rectify this by saying, “just a shmear,” after ordering your poppy seed with scallion. The server would nod knowingly, put on just the right amount and charge you a little less to boot. No more. As New York is taken over by the rest of the country people do not know what a shmear is, and asking for one is like shouting into the wind.
Another pet peeve: outside of New York people always assume you want your bagel toasted unless you tell them otherwise. Usually they have the decency to confirm this, but recently I was at an airport and ordered a bagel to take on the plane. Now, if I’m in a hurry and I’m going to be eating this in an hour, do I want to wait five minutes for a bagel to be made hot when I’m just going to let it cool again? No, but they toasted it anyway. That’s because bagels outside of New York have no flavor. By toasting them you approximate some of the burnt flavor that is supposed to come naturally as part of the bagel along the bottom and edges.
Meanwhile, down in Washington, there is hardly an edible bagel to be found. Yesterday I was walking home from the dentist so I figured I’d stop at So’s Your Mom, the only bagel I can stomach within walking distance of my house. So’s Your Mom is, naturally, a small Italian deli owned by Asian-Americans with an ironic, irrelevant joke name. The bagels are not good. They are not fluffy or chewy. They do not have that burnt edge. They are just bagels, which I do not even think you can find in Mount Pleasant, where I live. But, I chose to have mine with butter, not cream cheese. I think a toasted onion or sesame seed bagel with butter — lots of it — is vastly under-appreciated. It’s like the total opposite of the too much cream cheese phenomenon. (A lot of better just covers your bagel, it doesn’t pile up like too much cream cheese. Also, butter is a more subtle flavor.) When will Americans learn that less is more?