Something about the pandemic has a lot of people baking bread. This is a phenomenon that I haven’t heard Dr. Anthony Fauci discuss, or even the well-scarved Dr. Deborah Birx. But I know it’s happening when I see Amazon charging sky-high prices for simple baker’s yeast, which is nearly impossible to find on supermarket shelves. Through sheer diligence I managed to procure a huge bag — for which I paid an unbelievable amount of money.
The question is, why are we all doing so much baking? Partially, of course, it’s because most of us have been homes for months and months, and we want to do something useful, practical, a bit creative, and delicious. Or maybe it’s a deep psychological need of some kind. I really don’t know, but it was clear to me that it was becoming “a thing” when one of my daughters started telling me about her sourdough starter. This is a young professional woman with lots of children and a 12-hour-a-day job. What is it that’s propelling her to add yet another chore when her plate is already so full?
And then there’s my daughter-in-law. She’s warm and elegant, but hanging out in the kitchen has never been her style; in her career days she flitted around the world in a private jet. Now she’s suddenly making bagels. Bagels!
I happen to love bagels. No, not those enormous, puffy things that the supermarket sells, each of which looks like it weighs 10 pounds, nor those in Israel, which are just rolls with holes. Anything with cinnamon and raisins is similarly disqualified.
I know from bagels. I grew up in Newark’s Weequahic section near real bagels, delicious bagels, bagels that I still dream about and yearn for: Watson Bagels on Clinton Place. How lucky was I to live on Aldine Street, which Waze can confirm is just around the corner from Clinton Place.
Watson Bagels was where I ended many Saturday night dates with the guy I went on to marry, buying the hot bagels at midnight. Any true Weequahican remembers the pure joy of biting into the hard crust and reaching the truly heavenly, fresh interior of those sumptuous bagels. Somehow, we knew to get our fill of Watson when we had the chance because these bagels were too good to be forever. And now they are gone — how could they leave us so bereft?
True, there are some contemporary bagel stores that operate in the Watson mode. Their bagels are smaller than the size of a human head, which is good. Watson also taught me that bagels are not meant to be enormous sponges — not only must they be firm, but many of us toast them to make them even more chewy.
But even the best of these newcomers do themselves a disservice. They sell lox, cream cheese, and any number of non-bagel items. According to Watson lore, to which I heartily subscribe, a bagel store should sell bagels and only bagels. Period. No, not even milk or tuna salad. Just bagels. After all, bagel making is an art, and how many painters do you know who hang wallpaper? If you make bagels, you make bagels, and they’re of modest size with a hard crust and an interior that’s firm and tasty. Maybe you put a bit of kosher salt or sesame seeds on them, but you never desecrate your bagels with chocolate chips or cinnamon.
This brings me back to my daughter-in-law and her bagels. She would have fit right in if she baked for Watson: Her bagels are absolutely perfect. When we visited their family in Connecticut, wearing masks and maintaining our distance outside on their screened porch, we were served by our son with his face and hands covered. He’s not a surgeon but he sure looked like one. He brought out the bagels on a paper plate fresh from the oven, and simultaneously brought me back to Clinton Place. Especially during these troubling days, the home-baked bread was comforting. And yummy!
Now I am making my own bagels, and, wow, they are delicious! My freezer is filled with them, and I find myself longing for the company that I pray, in the months to come, will visit our home for Sunday brunch. Admittedly, it’s a somewhat insignificant pursuit. I am, after all, baking dozens of bagels in the middle of a pandemic, not saving the world, or discovering a vaccine. I don’t even know if it’s good for the Jews. But I am enjoying it, and baking enough so as to prepare for better days.
Oh, and the house smells fabulous!
Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange, N.J., and Israel.