Several weeks ago, the New York culinary scene received a seismic jolt with the abrupt closing of H & H Bagels, at 80th and Broadway. The place had been a fixture of the Upper West Side since 1972. The bagels were made the classic way—boiled first, then baked—and customers could get a hot bagel fresh from the oven at any hour of the day or night.
The store had been in trouble for a while, and the owners of H & H could not be described as model citizens. One of them plead guilty last year to a charge of failing to turn over more than $330,000 in payroll taxes collected from employees. Still, the closing was regarded by neighborhood residents as a natural disaster, somewhat worse than an earthquake, tsunami and plague of locusts combined.
In the wake of this tragedy, the Times ran a piece on the state of the bagel in New York. They called on Mimi Sheraton, their former restaurant critic and author of a book on bialys, to assess the situation. According to Ms. Sheraton, the national mania for super sizing is responsible for the “deplorable” current state of the New York bagel. The new, larger size bagel has changed the proportion of crust to interior dough, and dough conditioners have resulted in a puffy bagel that “panders to people who want a long shelf life.”
It’s a good point, and a much better assessment of the problem that the tired excuse that “the water is different” here (or anywhere else) than it is in Manhattan. You constantly hear the same rationale about bread—supposedly, we have to eat lousy bread in this country because we have different water than they do in Paris. In reality, the ability to bake excellent bread has more to do with someone’s work ethic, their notions of quality, and exactly how much mediocrity their customers are willing to accept.
None of this is much consolation to the residents of the Upper East Side, but at least they can still get on the subway and head downtown to get a decent bagel.