By Bakers Journal
It all began with the simple, but controversial question: Which city has the best bagels: Was it New York, Toronto, or Montreal?
Kat Romanow, a Montreal-based food historian was contacted by the 2018 Ashkenaz Festival to answer this age-old question. Among the judges was the renown bagel-lover and communications mogul, Moses Znaimer, who led the dissenting chant demanding the bagels have “Lox and cream cheese!” prior to the judging.
She was the obvious choice to moderate a discussion on the history of the bagel. While finishing up her Master’s degree in Jewish Food History, she started a Jewish food group, The Wandering Chew four and a half years ago. Having grown up in Montreal, she’s been “eating bagels all her life,” as she puts it. (“I’m a St-Viateur girl,” she confesses.) But her love of the popular bun isn’t the only quality that made this food historian an expert in what is arguably, North America’s most iconic bread.
Once Romanow joined the Museum of Jewish Montreal, she put together a food tour called ‘Beyond the Bagel.’ “Bagels are still an important part of it, though,” adds Romanow. “I did research on bagels here in Montreal; that kind of set the foundation for me. You learn more about bagels than by just eating them.”
Romanow’s food expertise was then sought out by Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller, the authors of “Feast: An Edible Road Trip.” They asked Romanow to develop a bagel recipe for their cookbook, essentially sealing her reputation as Canada’s bagel expert.
From that point on, the organizers of the Ashkenaz Festival knew whom to contact to organize a panel to discuss the bagel’s history, its roots in Polish baking and its trajectory from Europe to New York and then Canada.
The bagel’s backstory involves European immigration and extreme poverty in its country of origin, Poland. “Bagel peddling afforded those living in extreme poverty a way to make a living,” Romanow states. Peddlers would walk the streets of Warsaw with a long pole stacked with bagels. Romanow says that part of the Montreal bagel’s charm is that it’s gone from “a food that was made by Jews to a food that represents the city, as a whole.”
Romanow discussed what makes the bagel different from other breads, and also how Montreal and New York bagels differed. “Then, we’re going to go into the fun part, the tasting part.”
The three contenders for the crown of Best Bagel were selected from Toronto, Montreal and New York. None were labelled or identified, in order to preserve impartiality. Each bagel was sliced into quarters without cream cheese or lox (much to judge Moses Znaimer’s mock dismay) in order not to mask the bagels’ natural qualities or flavour.
Despite Romanow’s preference for Montreal bagels, she has a profound respect for New York bagels. “I want to talk about bagels because they’re so important. It’s really from New York that they were able to spread into Canada, and people recognizing them in supermarkets.
The future trends she’s seeing is an interest in reclaiming the bagel. “People are making them by hand and not necessarily going out to buy them anymore. In New York, people are wanting good bagels. And because there are so few places to get that, I think people are getting more interested in making them themselves.”
“And then, you have Black Seed, which makes their own bagels. And I think that’s a good sign for the bagel in New York, where people are not wanting to eat those industrialized bagels anymore and want to go back to the roots.”
In all, Romanow came away hoping that everyone had fun at the Bagel Battle and stepped away with a greater appreciation for what the bagel is. As for which city won? Hang on to your lox, because the winner shocked the (mostly) Canadian audience.