What I learned from the early shift at Mister Bagel
EC: Bagel Makers Are the Zen Monks of Breakfast
Credit: Photo by Flickr user TONY WEBSTER

In the summer of 1997, modern rock radio produced a bumper crop of garbage. Playlist programmers—Clear Channel guiltiest among them—created monocultures of flavorless, hybridized dreck, then scattered the bad seeds (never the Bad Seeds) across America like digital Monsantos. Every Saturday around 2:30 a.m., no sooner had southern Maine’s alt-rock station proclaimed “the revolution” that it would play Sugar Ray or Reel Big Fish. This was also the hour that my baking shift at Mister Bagel began.

Nothing qualified me to bake bagels: not a great grandfather who once operated a bakery in New Jersey; not numbering among my hometown’s handful of Jews; not playing the rabbi in our high school’s production of Fiddler On the Roof. I was but a dishwasher parlaying past experience into a more prestigious, better paying position at my former employer.

Mister Bagel’s grease-stained, Disco Era kitchen radio only picked up modern rock, along with adult contemporary (Michael Bolton, K.D. Lang) and a faint crackle of classic rock. Consequently, while everyone slept through the humid Maine night, I worked at a 505-degree, 90-square-foot oven with nothing but my hatred for Stabbing Westward, Fuel and Tonic to chill my blood.

I might’ve also glimpsed the Buddha.

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Playing the unsuspecting godhead to my trembling whelp was Tim, the full-time baker at Mister Bagel. Having washed dishes and stocked shelves at the same shop in high school, I was rehired between freshman and sophomore years of college to give Tim a break on weekends. Before being entrusted with the company’s proverbial bread and butter, though, I’d need training up—a task that fell to Tim.

Was he any more suited to the work than I? Fortysomething with a wispy goatee, a ponytail trailing behind a tennis visor, hollow cheeks, feral blue eyes and a build that suggested a rock climber on hunger strike, Tim credited baking bagels with helping him quit “smokin’ rock.” The nonstop neural assault of readying 250 bagels before sunrise was apparently potent enough to keep the pangs of crack addiction at bay.

“Pay attention, college,” Tim would admonish. Burn scars on his inner forearm told cautionary tales more indelible than any advice to keep my elbow high in an oven. He was invested in my apprenticeship; my victory, after all, would mean his freedom.

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Legit New York-style bagel kitchens have three focal points: the boiling kettle, the cold water bath and the oven. Our shop, a franchise in Mister Bagel’s roughly 12-location chain, received dough deliveries from a nearby central kitchen. The pre-formed rounds were rotated on baking racks in a walk-in refrigerator, which allowed the glutens to loosen gradually. On the morning of their fiery baptism, they would be pulled from the fridge to proof in the warming air.

Next came a hot-tub session in a kettle of roiling water the size of an oil drum. After swelling a certain amount, the bagels were fished out with a spatula and scattered in the bath: a six-foot-long, shallow steel reservoir with overhead spigots dribbling glacially cold water to retard the dough’s glutens.

Working quickly to avoid them turning to rocks, Tim would hook six bagels on his fingers, then twist his torso 180 degrees to deposit the cooled rounds onto baking boards. After showering them with the appropriate seeds, he loaded the boards onto one of five rotating trays arrayed in the oven’s cavity like Ferris wheel swings. Round and round the bagels went. Sufficiently browned, they were flipped off the boards to finish baking, then removed with a pizza peel and slid into wire baskets. Bagels up, buttercup.

So described, bagel baking is a predictable, rhythmic discipline, with much toe-tapping and clock-watching. In practice, 10 varieties might crowd the oven at any given time, each governed by a different flip schedule, each requiring a different pull moment. Meantime, bagels in the kettle might be ready for the cold bath, and cinnamon raisin bagels, damn them, might be puffing up too much on tray No. 4. And did the onion bagels make it in? To better monitor the action, you’re tempted to keep the oven door open, which would only ensure every bagel served that morning received a rough, uneven bake.

These were my problems, not Tim’s. His physique, I learned, fit the job, which required quick stabs of committed movement—not unlike in rock climbing—and very little recovery time. To watch Tim bake was to understand what Jack Kerouac, whose The Dharma Bums featured high on my summer reading list, meant by “Buddha-nature.”

“Bettah check on those sunflowahs, college. They burn quick.” There was an edge to Tim’s counsel, as if he felt unease not only about this kid in his midst, but about what awaited him on his day—Christ, two consecutive days—off. What would he do? What wouldn’t he do?

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The following weekend should have been my solo debut. Instead, Tim dropped in around 5 a.m., right in the thick of my bake. “I couldn’t fuckin’ sleep,” he said. I didn’t betray how ecstatic I was, thinking he’d arrived to rescue me from myself; the oven had already scrambled my brains and scalded my arm—twice. Instead he pulled up a stool, crossed his legs, and watched.

“I didn’t realize how fuckin’ fast you gotta move!” he said, bemused by my pantomime. For the first time since we’d met, out of the corner of my eye, I registered a smile on Tim’s face. “He’ll be O.K.,” I thought. Then, his expression soured.

“You listen to this fuckin’ gahbage?”