Tygerpen: A new front in bagel wars

As a child in Portland, Ore., I learned the Basic Rule of Bagels: Superior bagels are always made on the East Coast. And the first corollary to the Basic Rule: If not from the East Coast, bagel store owners will commit major crimes, like passing off steamed, doughnut-shaped bread with holes as “bagels,” and flavoring these with the likes of jalapeño, chocolate chips, cinnamon crumbles and kitty litter.

Further evidence: Over the past six years, Portlanders flocked to the Kettleman Bagel Company, which offered the first authentic boiled bagels in four decades. The place was owned and run by New York transplant Jeffrey Wang, but in November he sold out to Colorado-based Einstein Noah’s Bagels.

At first Einstein Noah’s tried to mollify the furious Portlanders. Then the company announced it was getting rid of all but three Kettleman Bagel recipes. The reaction by Portlanders is unprintable, but this outcome was foreseeable, because once again the Basic Rule of Bagels had been violated.

If you ask Jews what makes a great bagel or where to buy one, everyone has a strong, feisty opinion. Bay Area locals have capitulated for years, settling for adequate or inferior bagels and thinking unless they go East or go south to L.A., they’re doomed to eat faux bagels.

And they’re possibly right, because the Jewish man responsible for the greatest bagels in American history is deceased. He was Harry Mosler, whose famous rye breads and bagels existed in Portland for more than 43 years, the same length of time his fresh-baked bagels lasted.

Barely 5 feet tall, 115 pounds, with an egg-shaped head and drooping under-eye bags, Mr. Mosler did his own dough mixing. He kept his own variable schedule, rising at 1:30 a.m. to mix by hand and bake. Nothing was written down: His recipes were entirely in his head. Without machines, which he scorned, he could turn out in one 14-hour day 500 individual loaves of rye bread, 150 dozen bagels and 125 dozen rolls.

On Sundays we went to Mosler’s Bakery in old south Portland, the immigrant community of Jews and Italians that diminished as the two ethnic groups became more prosperous and gradually moved to the suburbs. Mosler’s remained the popular destination for the after-church crowd as well as Sunday school kids and their frazzled parents.

We weren’t afraid of Mr. Mosler exactly, but arriving at the bakery, those of us in the car under 10 suddenly developed mild panic attacks, agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and phagophobia (fear of being eaten). My chicken parents would hand me cash to pick up the bagels and rye bread, then kick me out of the car, admonishing me not to take too long, as if I had control over that in Mr. Mosler’s bakery.

While it’s undoubtedly true Mr. Mosler had a soft spot for kids and would give them each a free bagel, my memory is limited to the heavenly aroma of fresh-baked bread and lines of people buzzing about his shop, wondering aloud what made his bagels and breads so good.  Mr. Mosler, wearing a plain white T-shirt and smudged white apron, would survey the crowds with a glare — the image of an old-fashioned Austrian baker or, more accurately, a very short Sweeney Todd.

He yelled a lot. “So they want bagels? So they should wait until I get to them.”

And wait they did.

When Mr. Mosler died, taking his bagel recipe to the grave, the Jewish community reeled. Mosler’s Curse, part of the Basic Rule of Bagels, is that nobody anywhere will ever make bagels like Harry Mosler.

Later generations have never known great bagels. Recently, in fact, an online poll for best bagel was illustrated by a photo of hamantaschen. The clueless younger generations believe bagels are doughy round rolls with a hole in the center.

Occasionally, though, I hear them pass down a little bagel lore that cheers me about the future:

“Great for toasting and spreading with cream cheese or peanut butter.” (Peanut butter?!)

“Lox? That bright orange stuff?”

And best of all: ”Dude, sesame seed bagels are better than the poppy seed kind.  Sesame taste better and you won’t flunk a drug test.”


Trudi York Gardner is not a rabbi, rebbbetzin or spiritual leader. She’s not a Jew-by-Choice; her mother made her go 13 years to religious school and there was no choice. She lives in Walnut Creek and can reached at [email protected] or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.