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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Working in Coffeehouses, Bagels Edition

ALBANY MAY BE THE only minor major metropolitan area without bagel wars. My perspective surely is warped by the proximity of New York City, but that’s also probably one of the reasons passions around here run so low on the topic. The proximity of New York City is probably one of the reasons passions around here run so low on almost any topic.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I don’t include sports, which, for all the team-based partisanship they provoke, really don’t follow geographically based determinants. One picks a team to follow for a variety of reasons but, just as a particular team no longer presents a roster connected in any meaningful way to a particular city, so too can your choice be based anywhere. You can start with the team nearest your natal city and carry it with you as you travel through life; you can pick a team based on a star-of-a-moment player.

And I don’t include guns, because I live in an area rural enough to regard its weapons as religious icons and to season that worship with the fear-based conviction that the enemy (urbanites, homosexuals, Democrats, intellectuals) has a secret agenda to wrest away all firearms.

I remain unmoved by those passions, although I do have an NRA cap I wear from time to time to piss off my wife. Bagels, however, are another matter.

Were my exposure to them limited to the circlets provided by the local supermarket chains, I would find them a bore. I’ve been served the frozen variety (Thomas’s, for one, makes them) by hosts who should be ashamed of themselves, but I suspect they set a standard that the supermarkets seek to emulate. The chewiness of good bagels is a journey. The chewiness of supermarket bagels hurts your jaw.

Bagels made sense to me the first time I tasted the offerings at Absolute Bagel, at 107th and Broadway in Manhattan. They were large and at once chewy and pillowy, standing up to any and all of the cream cheese-based spreads, and to consume one in winter at one of the bagel shop’s cramped tables as each new arrival brought a fresh gust of ice to my face was pure bliss.

There were H&H adherents, of course, but I found those bagels too small and flavor-flat, and posterity seems to have confirmed my opinion by closing the place. But the partisanship rages in and around Manhattan: Murray’s? The Bagel Hole? Should you travel to Brooklyn?

Here in the Albany area, we have the Bruegger’s chain to reinforce the lousy supermarket selection. Even worse are the hilariously insubstantial offerings from Dunkin’ Donuts. And there’s Panera Bread, a chain whose star bagel is the Asiago cheese, successful because the cheese makes up for the fact that the bagel itself is more like toast. And Panera gives you cream cheese on the side, in insufficient containers. Cream cheese is to be spread on the bagel the moment it emerges from the toasting machine.

I have investigated the small number of area shops where the bagels are made on the premises, and most have fallen victim to the be-like-the-supermarket curse. Which is why I return to Uncommon Grounds. I’m usually in the Albany branch, which is more welcoming than the Saratoga Springs store, and I usually can count on seeing a tray of just-made bagels emerge from the back.

But it doesn’t matter. There’s enough of a business to assure that they’re fresh, and they’re large and pillowy and chewy – the closest you’ll get to Absolute in this part of the country. Even the day-olds, collected by the half-dozen and sold cheap, have enough life in them to persevere for a few more days if properly freezered (remember to slice them first).

Because I’m often working in a coffeehouse, the bagel matters. It provides a needed punch of carbs when I’m on deadline, and I can fight the subsequent carb fatigue with excellent coffee. Sure, there are muffins and cookies and an inviting slab of carrot cake to tempt me, but bagels like this are as good as dessert.

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