Bagels, Bialys and Belly Lox on Belmont Avenue

by Barbara L. Rothschild


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 it all. 
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?!


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