Much Ado About Tradition: The New York Bagel / by Rachel Eva Lim

“Authenticity is 99 percent subjective,” asserts Noah Bernamoff — the owner of New York’s dining trifecta of Mile End Deli, Black Seed Bagels and Grand Army Bar — with a wry smile. We’re seated at his flagship Mile End location in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, trying to wrestle with the notion of what constitutes authentic Jewish cuisine. “I think that what’s authentic is what speaks to people, and what speaks to you is partly the information coming in and partly the infrastructure you have to interpret that information,” he says. “You can hold your beliefs in what’s authentic and I’ll hold mine, and they can co-exist in a world peacefully.”

Sure. But what about tradition? And what about tradition as it pertains to a defining aspect of New York’s culinary identity: the bagel? In a city where a deep-seated appreciation for this staple bread product seems to be a prerequisite for calling oneself a New Yorker, different bagel shops throughout the five boroughs sell customers their spin on the humble Jewish staple. Whether their bagels are small circular hockey pucks, large fluffy discs or dense and heavily seeded, you’ll be hard pressed to find an establishment that doesn’t proudly parade the fact that they do things the “traditional” way, regardless of how old — or young — they might be.

Two notable stores that are situated on opposite ends of the age spectrum are Noah’s year-and-a-half-old Black Seed and Ess-a-Bagel, a Midtown East stalwart founded in 1976. Ess-a-Bagel is a popular destination among tourists and the area’s office workers, while Black Seed’s customer base is largely composed of young foodies and Lower Manhattanites looking for an updated take on the carb-laden classic. Black Seed’s bagels are relatively small and garnished with artisanal ingredients like watermelon radish and beet-cured lox. Ess-a-Bagel’s colossal creations are stuffed to the gills with generous servings of cream cheese and assorted sandwich fillings. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, as reflected by their disparate clientele and menu offerings, these places adopt vastly different business strategies and harbor divergent views on what makes a bona fide bagel shop.

Ess-a-Bagel — the old gun in this equation — was founded by the late Florence Wilpon, who pulled double duty as a teacher and entrepreneur for much of her early adult life. “She’d come home at night at about 11 o’clock, get up in the morning and go to school then work at the shop, every single day,” recounts Muriel Frost, Wilpon’s sister and Ess-a-Bagel’s current CEO. Since Wilpon’s death in 2013, a crew of her surviving relatives keeps Ess-a-Bagel afloat. Muriel’s daughter, Melanie, is in charge of operations at their Midtown East location, and Muriel’s nephews ran the Gramercy outpost before it shuttered earlier this year.

Unlike Ess-a-Bagel’s generational family operation, Black Seed is the baby in Noah’s mini restaurant empire that he began just over five years ago after dropping out of law school. After deciding against sticking out another semester of commercial real estate law, Noah decided to break into the New York dining scene. “I love just being in a restaurant and going into someone’s world,” Noah says. “It’s not just the food and it’s not just the service. There’s the space, the music, the look and feel — it’s really a transportive thing.”

If trafficking in tradition is the ultimate signifier of a veritable bagel shop, Noah and Muriel can point to their Jewish upbringings as having a major influence on how they run their respective operations. “I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, and most of these had delis and appetizing stores that sold little bagels — one of my uncles even owned one of them,” Muriel says. “Stores like these are part of our tradition, and I remember eating this food on Sunday mornings as breakfast or to break the fast.”

Similarly, Noah grew up in a traditional Jewish family in Toronto where food was an integral aspect of his childhood and heritage. “If there was some sense of religiosity in my family, it was that we were gonna be together on Friday night at my grandparents’ house, no matter what,” he says. In fact, Mile End was conceived as a response to that very ritual. “I came to New York to go to law school and saw a real loss,” Noah reveals. “The idea of gathering and sharing these foods is important and I didn’t know of anywhere where people were really doing that.”

When it comes to defining what epitomizes the consummate bagel experience, one thing that both Noah and Muriel can agree on is that the bagel itself is king — none of the other bells and whistles matter if the bread isn’t baked to absolute perfection. While Ess-a Bagel’s kitchen churns out large, crusty New York bagels with a barely discernable hole, Noah describes his “third party” bagels as a happy marriage between a New York and Montreal bagel. Black Seed’s dough contains salt and malt (ingredients more associated with a New York bagel) and is slowly proofed, boiled in honey water, heavily seeded and baked in a wood-burning oven—aspects borrowed from Montreal baking techniques. “Our dough is probably closer to a New York dough, but on the cooking side we’re much closer to a Montreal bagel,” Noah says.

Ess-a-Bagel’s large, dense and fluffy bagels are the product of a merry mishap. When Wilpon was purchasing the oven for their initial store, an acquaintance recommended a recipe that necessitated more expensive flour but promised to give her the best bagels in the world. “And when she went to make them they blew up in size in the compressor! They were big and they were tasty, so we left them that way,” Muriel recounts. “That mistake became part of our success.” Ess-a-Bagel currently hires two in-house rollers who painstakingly hand-roll over 3,500 bagels a day, before the bagels are boiled then baked in a classic rotating oven. Muriel, like Noah, reckons that it’s the hand-rolled quality of their bagels that makes them distinctly delicious. But it is here that their opinions diverge.

A brief look of mild distaste crosses Muriel’s face when I ask for her opinion on the bagel stores that have popped up over the past couple of years. “We’re an old school, traditional bagel shop,” she says. “I don’t even think about these newer bagel shops opening up in the city or see them as our competition. We have no intention of making bagels like that.” Muriel is also adamant that she doesn’t see a link between the city’s older bagel shops and these newer, shinier establishments. “Many people who are starting these new bagel shops never knew what the traditional bagel shop was like or looked like, so they have nothing to compare it to,” she insists. “We don’t see them as an evolution of what we’re doing here, and I don’t think people associate them with us. I don’t associate them with us either.”

Noah has a slightly different take. “I urge people to not consider themselves the beginning of history, and to look further back to where they came from,” he says. “I don’t intend to disparage other businesses, but places that have been around for thirty or forty years did not invent the bagel culture or tradition.” He also stresses that the Jewish delis and appetizing stores of today are a “paraphrasing” of the culinary traditions of his European Jewish ancestors, subject to the myriad interpretations that occur as the recipes are passed down through various generations. “We’re always reinventing our traditions,” Noah declares. “If you want to know where our food came from and where the tradition truly starts, you have to go back to that time. You can’t just say that 1968 represents the tradition of making bagels.”

And although some might bemoan Black Seed’s four-ounce bagels and smaller portion sizes as a rip off — compared to the gargantuan pastrami sandwiches served at New York institution Katz’s Delicatessen or Ess-a-Bagel’s relatively mammoth creations — Noah sees it as his civic duty to buck certain outdated old school practices that he views as excessive, unnecessary and a deviation from tradition. “I’m gonna practice a system that I respect and appreciate, not one that is prescribed to me because of how the delis and bagel shops of the last few decades have done things,” he asserts. Noah cites Katz’s “overstuffed sandwiches” and the “massive 700 calorie bagels with no hole on the inside” that have become the norm as traditions he is particularly keen to dismantle. “If you look at a cross section of many of these bagels, it’s like five slices of bread,” he says. “At no point in our history were Jews in a position to be eating like, a pound of meat in a sandwich. That’s a North American postwar gluttony tradition that’s sort of tied to this American Dream ideal of having as much as you want to the point that you can’t even finish it.”

Another area where Noah and Muriel’s views diverge is how they’ve chosen to usher their menus into the 21st century. Despite Muriel’s insistence that Ess-a-Bagel is an “old school” bagel shop, they’ve actively experimented with different flavors and items that deviate from classic appetizing store fare. Standard ingredients like whitefish, lox, pickled herring and smoked turkey have been on the menu for decades and remain extremely well-liked by customers, but the store also gets experimental with their cream cheese flavors and once dabbled with serving pizza bagels. “We have the basic flavors like scallion and vegetable cream cheese, but we also have Oreo cream cheese, a Halloween one that’s pumpkin and raisin and walnut,” Muriel says. “But we would never take something like the whitefish off our menu because it’s traditional and people like it.” For Ess-a-Bagel, it seems that modernizing entails making tiny twists to already established favorites rather than introduce entirely new concepts to their tried and trusted way of doing things. But this seems to be exactly what Noah is lashing out against.

“Jewish restaurants that make matzo ball soup with a matzo ball wrapped in bacon piss me off,” Noah says. “Like, what are you doing? Why don’t you just make a matzo ball better than anyone has ever made a matzo ball? Use bone marrow. Make it the craziest matzo ball you can make it. But don’t just throw a piece of bacon on it.” Black Seed’s collaborations with popular chefs like Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food, Ivan Ramen’s Ivan Orkin and Jessica Koslow of Sqirl have piqued the interest — and taste buds — of discerning and adventurous millennial eaters and represent Noah’s all-or-nothing approach to modernizing the bagel. “Don’t just back your concept bus over the tradition, bring it to the tradition and elevate it without ruining it,” Noah adds. “Putting fucking blueberry cream cheese on a chocolate chip bagel is garbage. It’s changing the fundamentals of the tradition. And I’m not saying that serving squid ink bagels doesn’t fundamentally change that either, but that was more to show people how crazy a bagel could get in a way they couldn’t possibly have ever imagined.”

Much of Ess-a-Bagel’s refusal to implement massive changes to their menu is that they simply don’t need to. Part of the luxury of being a near-forty-year-old institution is that their reputation precedes them — they’ve had ample time to make a name for themselves and solidify their customer base of tourists, corporations and regulars who simply love their bagels. Their model has worked for decades, and continues to work today. “We have one gentleman who orders a sandwich for delivery every day for lunch and has been doing so for about twenty years, and we’ve had customers whose kids have grown up with us because they’ve been coming to Ess-a-Bagel for so long,” Muriel says. Their marketing approach is similarly old school, choosing partnerships with and feature spots on television networks and relying on word of mouth to supplement their online presence. “You don’t hear of a television station wanting to do a program about them,” declares Muriel when I mention that Black Seed is prominently featured in many online dining publications and has a robust Instagram following. “Social media doesn’t necessarily sell bagels.”

Looking toward the future, Noah reckons that bagel stores and delis that refuse to modernize their cuisine risk falling into obsolescence once their existing customers finally get their tab called at the bar of life. “If everyone’s just serving what they’ve always done, Carnegie Deli and Katz’s included, who are you gonna be serving food to once your customers die?” he questions. “Old Jews who remember a former time of Jewish food — they’re gone! Or going.”

Muriel thinks that her company is going to do just fine, and that it’s the new wave bagel shops that are at a disadvantage, partly due to their location. “The fact that these new bagel stores are located in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side means that they don’t get the big corporations,” Muriel says. “I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I don’t think they’re going to make it.”

Noah envisions a day when tradition is no longer used as a crutch for refusing experimentation and innovation, but as the driving force behind modifications that will ensure the survival of Jewish American cuisine. “The philosophy of doing things a certain way because that’s how things have always been done is an inherently dying philosophy,” Noah asserts. “Maybe it’s a risk-averse philosophy, maybe it’s the riskiest philosophy because there’s no promise of longevity.” Indeed, it’s his model of staying true to tradition while being willing and excited to make changes to the cuisine in response to existing cultural conditions that he hopes will ensure Black Seed’s continued success. “I honestly don’t know what’s gonna happen to the old bagel shops in the future, but I can tell you that my model works right now,” he says. “If there’s a longevity to the idea it’s that you can present things with a refreshed perspective that’s relevant to the moment it’s being created in. And that philosophy is what I hope will survive."

Illustration by Kyle Sheehan

Published in Bone & Seed, a Dinner Lab publication