Not more than one block away from our apartment
building, located at 321 Belmont Avenue, stood the Watson Bagel
Company. The owners of this genuine, old fashioned bagel bakery
were the Amster family, who conveniently also lived at 322 Belmont
Avenue, another apartment building directly across the street from
the one where our family lived.
Saturday nights were the occasions to walk directly down the street
to purchase those delicious, yet hot-from-the oven bagels, their
familiar aroma clinging to the night air. From there it was a short
walk also on Belmont Avenue, to either Baer's Market or Herbie Shapiro's
smaller "bodega" type grocery store. The purpose there was to buy
lox, otherwise known as smoked salmon, and perhaps also a small
square block cut amount of cream cheese, to "schmeer" on the bagel,
while lastly topping the cream cheese with the lox delicacy, and
usually followed by a large and generous slice of raw onion topping
On today's market, smoked salmon, lox, or its costlier and less
salty variety called Nova, is still a delicious treat on a weekend
morning or evening. However, it is a very expensive commodity, today
bearing prices in the vicinity of thirty-two dollars or so a pound!
Back in the day, it was a rather inexpensive treat, and mother would
usually request the saltier belly lox. The grocer would have a very
long,thin and extremely keen knife for always hand slicing the lox.
The very thin strips would then be placed on a sheet of wax paper.
The oily and orangey colored residue of that healthy Omega 3 fish
oil would begin to saturate the wax paper, and so the grocer would
then double wrap the lox in what appeared to be white butcher paper.
This would prevent seepage of the oil through the final brown paper
bag to be carried home. The same would be true of the block of cream
cheese purchased, it would be sliced with some type of serrated
edge slicer, one with a long handle which was similar to what household
device today is called a cheese slicer, (what else?)!!! The cream
cheese also would then be placed on wax paper, getting the final
outer wrapping of butcher paper as well.
It was a welcome trip to go to the bagel bakery on wintry mornings
or nights, for the warmth within, coupled with the delicious aroma
of those baking bagels, cheered the very soul. However, on hot,
sweltering summer nights, it was a different story.
I recall the Hades-like atmosphere of the bagel bakery on a steamy
July or August evening, the constant incandescent glow and roar
of those bagel baking ovens adding to the hellish atmosphere within.
There was no air conditioning in those years, to comfort the conditions
of the workers and bakers there. My childhood memories still recall
the bagels in boiling cauldrons of simmering water, awaiting placement
in the baking ovens. The bagels would be fed into the ovens using
a long handled and wide paddle device, similar to the wooden pizza
paddles used today. In that constant inferno, the bagel bakers would
work stripped to the waist, many wearing headbands, in order to
keep the perspiration from falling onto the bagels. Their skin glowed
a very red shade from the constant blaze of the roaring ovens, in
front of which they were posed and so dedicatedly worked. The men,
needless to say, were continually exposed to the infernal fire of
those baking ovens, for the length of their entire shifts! Even
the din of many huge industrial fans running at full tilt in the
bakery, did little to mollify their labors under those ungodly conditions!
My late father was a bread baker for many years at the Harrison
Baking Company, and so he would make me aware as a child, to appreciate
what sacrifices were made in order for folks to enjoy those bagels,
especially during those oppressive summer months!
The customer always walked away with what was called a "baker's
dozen", or thirteen bagels. I could never wait long enough
for the short walk home before sampling those bagels, still so very
hot, and carried by mother, in the brown paper sack in which they
were placed! I would break off a small piece of a random bagel,
which sometimes yet tended to burn my tiny fingers a bit. Mother
would usually caution me that eating bagels before they cool off,
could be the cause of a later upset stomach, or "tummy ache."
Nevertheless, it was wonderful to taste even that small sample,
with its crisp and crunchy taste almost melting in my mouth!
Bagels back in the day were not for the carbohydrate conscious,
for they were almost the size of a Mini Cooper tire! (Well, I am
exaggerating a bit)! Always hand made and uncannily perfectly rounded
into the same size and shape, they would out size and out rival
any machine made bagel made today. The varieties were usually limited
to plain, onion, salted or sesame, the more exotic flavors of today,
(think blueberry, garlic, sun dried tomato, jalapeno, etc.,) being
non-existent. As of those days, bagels had not as yet enjoyed their
multi-ethnic appeal, and were usually a favorite of the Jewish community.
It is said that the bagel was a Polish-Jewish invention, first being
sold in the Warsaw region of Poland by street peddlers. The peddlers
would sell the bagels, placed through their holes on a stick held
upright, and each one individually sold. That is also how they were
initially sold by street vendors and later on pushcarts, on the
encumbered streets of the Lower East Side in New York, in the early
days of the last century.
The bialy is the lesser known cousin of the bagel, softer and still
round in shape, but definitely never as popular as the bagel. I
do believe they were also made by the Watson Bagel Company, but
never sold in the same amount as the variety of bagels. I cannot
ever recall my parents purchasing bialys, but I am sure other people
in the neighborhood did on occasion.
When Lender's Bagels first appeared on the market, those who were
bagel purists or "bagel mavens", emphatically turned up
their noses at these very ersatz items, which masqueraded as the
"real Mc Coy." From the freezer to the toaster oven, they
lacked the flavor and appeal of a fresh, warm, hand-manufactured
bagel, and left no doubt in the Jewish community, that it could
not become an "instant fix" for the real thing! No way
and no how!
Today, the bagel still reigns supreme, be it from Manhattan, Einstein's,
or Dunkin' Donuts. However, each time I stop in one of these familiar
establishments, I cannot help but recall the wonderful times of
those Saturday nights or Sunday mornings enjoying those Watson Bagels,
with belly lox, on Belmont Avenue! Donuts, anyone?!