The State of the Boston Bagel Is Strong
It’s cliché to claim that Boston’s bagels are mediocre, long overshadowed by New York to the south and Montreal to the north, a hole in the middle of two bagel meccas. But bagels have never been hard to find in the Greater Boston suburbs, where Jewish communities traditionally congregate. Arguably, the Boston bagel tradition began at the long-shuttered “Original King Bagel” Eagerman's in Natick, which claimed to originate the cinnamon raisin and invented much of the modern manufacturing equipment for bagel-making. Beyond his baking, owner Moe Eagerman was also notorious for his running feuds with the other bakeries in the area, many of which are still open: Kupel's in Brookline is consistently named one of America's ten best bagel shops, and Chelsea's Katz's has been open for 70 years and originated the pizza bagel.
"The Boston versus New York bagel war is like the Red Sox vs Yankee thing—regional pride, that's what it's really about," claims Mike Lombardo, owner of Rosenfeld's Bagels in Newton, Massachusetts. Mike has been baking bagels the same way for 30 years, the way the "union guys" taught him when he was a teen sweeping the floor. "The big bagel place back then was Eagerman's," he says. "The big golden bagel. Rosenfeld's was really rare—at Eagerman's you'd never get a sandwich. Cream cheese was something you bought at the supermarket."
Though many of the old Boston standbys are still in operation, a new wave of bagel shops like Better Bagels, Exodus Bagels, and Bagelsaurus are attracting new, young crowds around the city. Indeed, the Boston Globe claims that Boston is experiencing a "quiet bagel Renaissance," which surprises both Adam Hirsh of Exodus Bagels and Sam Harden of Better Bagels. "I think it's funny that we all had the same idea pretty much at the same time," says Harden. Both Hirsh and Harden have worked in the Boston service industry for years, and neither of them trained as bakers, though Harden's partner James Grimes's parents ran a bagel store in New Jersey.
Better Bagels, which now sells to many top Boston restaurants and cafes has built its business via a traditional wholesale model, and is now opening their first brick and mortar cafe in the foodie Seaport District. They plan to serve mostly bagels and cream cheese, maybe some chicken salad or smoked turkey, but nothing too fancy. "We've never had any interest in a crazy sandwich... We're not trying to cover up the taste. Our focus is on making the best bagel we can," says Harden.
Hirsh, on the other hand, is more focused on what's "between the buns," serving up massive bagels stuffed with smoked pork butt, jalapeño jelly, cream cheese, or goat cheese and pesto at a variety of markets and popups around Boston. Dozens line up every Saturday morning at the Egleston Square farmers market for the elaborate concoctions, which are designed to be fast, delicious, and above all, highly Instagrammable. "In the beginning, I was trying to open a breakfast place," he says. "I don't want to be a bagel shop, I want to be a restaurant that makes its own bagels." For the California-native Hirsh, his hustle is an arsenal of sandwiches, which he designs around the bagels he started baking three years ago. "We design the sandwiches around that kind of bread," he says, "Some don't work with the skin, but when it does, it's delicious."
Of course, there’s still dissent among the ranks. According to purists like Lombardo, the new bakers are missing the point: "Some of the bagels I’ve seen, they don’t look like what I’m doing. People will complain that the bagel’s hard, but they’re supposed to be hard. If you want a wonder bread donut, that’s not a bagel.... Once they get above 4 ounces, then you’re eating a small loaf of bread. A lot of people do bagels with sugar, shortening, butter, but then it’s not a bagel. It’s fine, but it’s not a bagel."
In the end, Boston’s poor reputation for bagels may actually help fledgling bagel-makers. "There are so many bagel shops in New York, it's hard to stand out," Harden says. Or, as Hirsh put it, "Where there's abundance, there's also crap."