A Good Bagel Is Hard to Find
After 18 years of life as a writer in New York City, always struggling, always striving just to catch up, I finally figured out how to get ahead: Live somewhere else. In fact, I just bought what feels like an absurd luxury: a tiny writing shack in New Orleans. As I figure out how to divide my time between my booming Brooklyn waterfront neighborhood and my serene Bywater existence, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m leaving behind in New York City and what I gain in New Orleans. Everything always comes back to food for me.
Eating in New Orleans is a pleasure, not just because the food is great, but because here we eat with gusto and desire and bravado. (I will absolutely never forget the first time I got the gorgeous, buttery, garlicky barbecue shrimp at Liuzza’s, soaking the French bread in the leftover sauce, scraping that plate clean.) And you can get nearly anything you want in New Orleans—except for good bagels and whitefish salad.
There are a handful of places making adequate bagels—they’re fine, they’re fine—but bagels are one of New York’s party tricks, like breathtaking sunsets from the Brooklyn waterfront, unusual job opportunities, and surprisingly enjoyable one-night stands. A good bagel was —and still is—ubiquitous in New York City. You can get them at the deli and bagel shop and the coffee shop and the bodega, and some are better than others but nearly all are good.
When I first moved to New York City in the late 1990s, I lived on enormous, doughy, hot, bagels, slathered in butter. I could get them for a quarter at a local deli or from a street vendor, or for a dollar more I could get egg and cheese on it, too, and salt and pepper, and sometimes hot sauce. What I ordered was determined usually by whether or not I was hungover. That, along with leftover sandwiches scavenged from conferences rooms post-meetings at my office, was how I afforded my life.
The biggest treat, when I had a few extra dollars, was either lox or whitefish salad. If bagels were comfort, these toppings were luxury. Lox was like a mink stole, whitefish a steam bath. They weren’t just sustenance: they represented essential cultural Jewishness, and New York-ness, too.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, where there was exactly one place to get decent deli food, and that was a 45-minute drive away. My father used to go there early on Sunday mornings whenever we had family visiting. He would disappear in the car and return with bags and bags of food. I loved the idea of a spread for breakfast—that is, food actually spread out in front of you, all for your taking. Whitefish, lox, cream cheese, capers, onions, tomatoes, and bagels on top of bagels, still warm from paper sacks. It was a treat, a rarity. In New York City I could have it whenever I liked, if only I could afford it.
I have been told there is only one decent brand of whitefish available in New Orleans… which of course comes from New York. It’s Blue Hill Bay smoked whitefish salad, made by Acme Smoked Fish in Brooklyn, where it is produced en masse and transported across the country, and then sold at Costco.
But it’s not New Orleans’ responsibility to make me whitefish, no sir. There’s plenty of other kinds of fish in this town, oysters and crawfish and shrimp, for starters. And it’s not her job to make bagels, either, not here in this city where the baking is descended from the French tradition. New Orleans is in charge of po' boy bread and baguettes, and the biscuits are something special, too, not to mention their doughnuts. “Stay in New York City if you want bagels, you fool,” New Orleans tells me (although, to be fair to New Orleans, she always says it with a smile).
A friend here in New Orleans offered me that “local” whitefish one night, a spoonful from a plastic container. “Try some,” said my friend. I didn’t want to. I knew what was coming. We could argue about the best kind of whitefish salad, I know. I like mine with a little celery and onion in it, a little crunch, a little texture, but at the very least it should have a vibrant, oily, smoky flavor, with just a hint of mayonnaise tang as well. I am sorry to tell you this particular whitefish did not travel well. It was too mushy, there was no texture to it. It could have been tuna fish salad, could have been chicken salad. It wasn’t terrible, but you could tell it had been on a journey to get to that spoon in that kitchen. I’ll tell you what it tasted like. It tasted like goodbye.
Jami Attenberg is the author of five books of fiction, including The Middlesteins, and, most recently, Saint Mazie.