Walnut Creeks Bagel King rolls in dough for 18 years

Whenever I look too thin to my grandma, she smothers me with a hug and sits me down while she bakes "soul food" to fatten me up.

But when I'm not visiting her in Chicago, I have to find my soul food in another place.

Bagel King in Walnut Creek fits the bill. Celebrating its 18th birthday, the one-of-a-kind eatery makes bagels that I classify as soul food.

What are the ingredients for the nourishment of the soul? Edith Litvin, co-founder of Bagel King, gladly divulges part of her secret recipe — "I bake kindness into my bagels."

Bagel King, a family owned and operated store, also treats its bagels as family. "Bagels are like people," Litvin says. "People like to talk to their bagels and get to know them. My bagels develop personality out of the oven."

The store offers 35 kinds of bagels to chose from, including cranberry-orange and chocolate.

Litvin offers me one and as I look at the bagel, it looks back at me with an endless, circular smile. While I taste it, talking to the bagel inside my mouth as Litvin recommends, she says, "I never throw away a bagel. Sometimes I ask a customer `Do you mind holding this bagel for me?'"

Soon I am "holding" several bags of Litvin's irresistible bagels for her.

Bagels are probably the most recognized symbol of Jewishness in the United States, more so than the Star of David. Unfortunately, truly blessed bagels, baked in the Old World style, may be nearly extinct. Bagel King claims to be the only store in the Bay Area that holds to the old standards of water-boiling and stone-oven baking. Boiling the bagels gives them a light crust and a chewier middle than the ubiquitous pan-baked bagels, say bagel mavens.

Litvin's secret recipe comes from her birthplace in Hungary. During World War II, she was interned in Auschwitz and survived. After the war, she relocated to Munich, Germany. Because she spoke English and five other languages, she was able to land a job with the United Nations Rehabilitation Association. Working in the immigration department, her tasks involved exposing Nazis attempting to flee to the United States.

In 1946, the self-proclaimed "war bride" married Nathan Litvin, an American soldier who took part in the invasion on Normandy. When the couple looked to retire, one of their four children, Naomi, mentioned that something was missing in the Bay Area.

"Naomi called and said there were no good bagels in the Bay Area," Edith says. "My husband came out to taste the bagels and agreed."

The Litvin family then opened Bagel King in Walnut Creek as a retirement business. "My husband spent five years studying the bagel business while waiting to set up shop," Litvin says. "He brought in a guy from New York. He also surveyed all the water and found the best water for making bagels was in Walnut Creek."

All four children worked in the family business. Their son Joe and Naomi still help operate the store.

"As a family business, there is lots of fighting, screaming, and hollering," Joe Litvin says. "We get along well but it is intense."

His mother adds, "After my children went on with their careers, Joe came back because he loves the place.

"To have a family business is a dream for me. It taught my children discipline and self-support. We have lots of fun. It sets a terrific example for families."

For several years, Bagel King was the only bagel store in Contra Costa County. Joe Litvin attributes the longevity of the business to the attention his family pays to bagels.

"We survived the onslaught of Noah's because we stuck to quality as a hands-on family and neighborhood store," he says.

The Bagel King is certified kosher, under the supervision of Rabbi Eliahu Shalom Ezran. Not only is the food baked kosher, Jews light the ovens every day except Saturday. On Shabbat, a non-Jewish worker runs the business and garners the profits.

On other mornings, Edith Litvin arrives before daybreak to start the day's baking. "When my husband passed away five years ago, I had to take on the role of a man in every aspect," she says. "I wake up at 2:30 in the morning so I can avoid the heavy traffic to get to work. At work I have to check everything. I have had to become very independent."

Two poems about her life as a survivor hang inside the store and attest to her independent mind. In writing her poems, she says she "used simple words so children and adults could understand.

"When I was at Auschwitz, I said to myself I will be always generous and kind if I can survive. Now I am nice to everyone; I don't single out anyone."

Litvin decides there is no way I can leave her store without a sample of everything she bakes — a year's supply of soul food.

I ask how much it costs, but she shoos me off and responds, "I say I am rolling in dough. You get it?"