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Hole in my heart

The search for a decent bagel around town yields lessons in something greater

By Kevin Pang, Tribune reporter

October 20, 2011

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Every Sunday morning from the time he was 2 until he was 12, Michael Zedek and his father would head to their Brooklyn neighborhood bagel shop. Much of his father's days were spent toiling in his auto mechanic shop, so time spent together was cherished.

Zedek remembered a noisy orderliness to the bakery. As a child, excitement grew as their order number drew closer. He could still feel the warmth inside the shop, the steam from vats of boiling bagels radiating heat.

They purchased onion rolls for breakfast and poppy seed bagels as an afternoon treat. On good weeks, Zedek earned enough money to buy a black and white cookie for himself — a thick sugar cookie glazed with a half-moon each of vanilla and chocolate icing.

"The greater fun is in remembering those encounters even more than the tastes," said Zedek, now Rabbi Michael Zedek of Edgewater's Emanuel Congregation.

We drove north on the Edens Expressway in search of those encounters — and for a decent bagel.

At Highland Park's Once Upon a Bagel, glass cases and wire baskets were filled with the familiar sesame, pumpernickel and corn-rye bagel offerings. "It smells like history," Zedek said on the exhale.

There were new flavors Zedek never encountered growing up: chocolate chip, honey-blueberry, whole wheat with oat bran. "I'm not going to stand in the way of progress," Zedek said, in a tone halfway between diplomacy and resignation. "I don't think I can stop the tide."

Zedek is 65, looks 45, going on 15. He comes straight from Woody Allen central casting. Zedek is that good sort of cliche, the funny rabbi whose volume and pitch modulate with extraordinary range. He leans in to underscore a punch line.

He's a pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish), so we settled for the Nova lox plate, whitefish salad, a few bialys and bagels. Zedek also insisted we order lox, eggs and onions, a taste combination from his youth now fused permanently.

His father made it so that the components blended to a dark mustard color, a homogeneous whole greater than the sum of its parts. Try as he might, Zedek has not been able to reproduce the dish.

When the food arrived (in startling time), Zedek aimed his fork at the lox, eggs and onions. He took a few thoughtful chews, then paused. The dish was as advertised, but ... it didn't taste the way he remembered.

He considered with similar reflection the onion bagel smeared with chive cream cheese. These bagels were bigger than ones from his youth. The interior was soft enough that the surface sprang back to shape even after being pressed down. Watching Zedek's eyes, you could see memories rewinding.

"Have I had a good taste experience here? The answer is yes," he said. "Is it reminiscent of the famous New York City-style bagel? No."

Left to less articulate minds, one might dismiss the experience — taste not syncing with his recollections — as a failed mission. But this was where our conversation drifted from food. Zedek can't help but view the world with a perspective that extracts life lessons from minutiae — even a bagel.

He talked about a Hebrew phrase, d'var acher, meaning "another interpretation." It says few things in life are bound to absolute truths, and thus having another interpretation is to our greater benefit. Yet when it comes to food, often we resist contrary opinions, becoming defensive when someone says our favorite restaurant is awful. We have an intense need to be validated.

Zedek is also reminded of the Hebrew word for "argument," which when deconstructed has its roots in the word chelek, meaning "a portion."

"It's this exquisite, amazing, wonderful notion that in an argument in Jewish life, I don't have a monopoly on the truth, I have a portion of the truth," Zedek said.

We dug into our whitefish salad. He thought it was over salted; I thought it was seasoned properly. We were both correct.

"… and maybe we can combine and get a bigger part of the truth," he said.

The bagel, a bread with neither a beginning nor an end, is perhaps a metaphor for our lives going round and round. Or that the void in the middle has significance. Or maybe its circle shape is somehow auspicious.

Or none of the above.

The mighty bagel is but a humble bread of flour, yeast and water. The appealing glossy, smooth crust comes from boiling the dough in water before it's baked (it has also been called a "water doughnut"). The presence of lactic acid bacteria gives the bagel that slight tang.

Compared with most breads, little water is used in the dough's formation. So the density of the interior is a crucial trait. As Maria Balinska wrote in her authoritative "The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread," a traditionally made bagel is "past its prime after a mere five hours."

Many cultures can claim a ring-shaped bread in its culinary history. Puglians, from the Italian "heel" on the Adriatic Sea, have the tarallo to claim as a bagel progenitor. A closer bridge to the modern bagel is the Polish obwarzanek — more ring-shaped than bread-with-hole, larger than our bagels, and woven from two strands of dough.

What's clear is that bagels were peddled predominantly by Eastern European Jews, who first brought their baking talents to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. By the late 1930s, bagels had become so ingrained in New York City life that Jewish bakers formed unions. It remained, however, a food confined within ethnic circles for the next few decades, a curio to Middle America. By the time the 1960s arrived, the bagel was on the precipice of entering the popular vernacular.

Something resonated with Zedek as he walked into Kaufman's Delicatessen and Bakery in Skokie. He surveyed the room.

"I see a lot of food here that we used to eat all the time."

The fish case at Kaufman's was particularly magnificent. Gleaming fillets of salmon, whole herrings, primeval slabs of sable, smoked, cured and peppered every which way. The adjoining bakery smelled as bakeries do, redolent of early mornings.

We heard music not associated with Jewish delis: upbeat Afro-Cuban music. Progress also reared its head in the form of cinnamon-raisin bagels. Most telling was the woman at the cash register — she wore a cross medallion.

"If I had to write a sermon about this experience," Zedek said, "I would talk about the diversity. Talk about the amazing melting pot of America. How one Jewish community's food contribution to the American story was enlarged by the American experience."

One man responsible for integrating bagels into the narrative was a Polish baker named Harry Lender, who arrived in New Haven, Conn., around 1927. Lender's innovation was in purchasing a freezer; his bakery was able to make and freeze enough bagels ahead of time, then defrost them the night before they were delivered to stores. Few businesses could tell the difference between freshly made and previously frozen.

In the 1960s, Lender found a California inventor, himself the son of a bagel baker, who came up with a machine that shaped dough into rings. By now, much of the Lender business was in supermarkets, where customers found the freezer-to-toaster model convenient. The Lender's Bagels brand became as familiar to consumers as Sara Lee. A once-ethnic food had become American.

Back at Kaufman's, 56 years strong, the bagels before us were likely two hours removed from the oven. Zedek sliced a poppy seed bagel, draped a piece of lox over one half and topped that with a healthy chunk of alder wood-smoked sable. He appeared very content.

The sable was buttery, luscious, smooth on the intake.

"Maybe my imagination is playing tricks on me," he said, "but this sable tastes awfully, awfully, awfully good."

Now, those Gentile Motown singers The Supremes came on the speakers with "You Keep Me Hanging On."

"I'm going to bet that if you ask people for their bagel preference, they'd probably say the previous place. Because this actually takes some work. A good bagel the next day should break your teeth," Zedek said. "But this is much more of the bagel I remembered growing up with. It's got some intensity. I still have some flavor in my mouth at this point as we're talking."

At our last stop, New York Bagel & Bialy in Lincolnwood, we noticed a tall stack of crunchy bagel chips in the corner.

"Recycling," Zedek said. "All those bagel chips are bagels that didn't sell. And they get another life."

But we came here to sample the bialy, the crustier, more topographically varied cousin to the bagel. While bagels are boiled then baked, a bialy is only baked, with a depression in the middle rather than a hole. Unlike bagels, a bialy has a distinct top and bottom half.

Between our bialy was a thick slather of lox spread that bore the color of an orange Dreamsicle. Taken as one, it was chewy, rich and textured, requiring contributions from both lower and upper sets of teeth.

Dr. Brown's was the deli soda of choice from Zedek's childhood. His father was a Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray guy — celery flavored and reminiscent of ginger ale. He himself liked cream soda. We grabbed a can of cream soda from the cooler for old times' sake.

Zedek took a sip and grimaced. "That's tough to drink. Way too sweet. My God, how did I ever like this?"

He took a moment to reflect.

"We look back with lots of experiences and we inflate and distort them, sometimes not for the betterment of ourselves or others," he said. "It's never going to go away. But that doesn't mean it's not dangerous."

We met a gentleman waiting in line to order who swore by this place. One reason is the store is open 24 hours, ideal for 3 a.m. bagel and lox cravings (there are two other locations, though not open round-the-clock). We asked him, if this bakery went out of business, where would he go? The man said he didn't know. He did not have a second choice.

"And so it goes," Zedek said.

And so it goes. That statement, which sticks with me all these weeks later, was powerful in its nonchalance. Embracing differences — you would think it's a lesson that could stop our bickering, maybe end wars. The first step is sometimes as simple as sitting down to break bread.

Bagel spots:

New York Bagel & Bialy (three locations): 4714 W. Touhy Ave., Lincolnwood, 847-677-9388 (open 24 hours); 3556 W. Dempster St., Skokie, 847-673-9388; 8794 W. Dempster St., Niles, 847-390-0993

Kaufman's Delicatessen & Bakery: 4905 W. Dempster St., Skokie, 847-677-6190

Once Upon a Bagel: 1888 First St., Highland Park, 847-433-1411

kpang@tribune.com

Twitter @kevinthepang