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The Bagel Rolls On


While I’ve been adjusting to life in Spain, Spain has kindly been adjusting to me. I refer of course to the bagel.
I’m not addicted but it’s nice to know if a bagel craving ever hits, there’s a way to vaguely satisfy it – because they’re here, they’re really here. There have been individual bagel restaurants in at least Madrid and Barcelona for several years, but the bagel’s now gone mainstream (ish) here since a Spanish fast-food sandwich chain recently added bagel sandwiches to its menu. That’s like McDonalds offering gazpacho (which it does here, by the way). OK, maybe it doesn’t make bagels mainstream yet, but it’s quite a step for a bread item that has to be explained on the chain’s website. The sandwiches have things like pesto sauce and pork loin, and the hot ones get a little soggy from the heating, but hey, bagels have taken odder paths in the States.
Bagels of course started out in Jewish communities in Europe (Poland? Vienna? Pick your story. I lean toward Poland just because variations on the Vienna origin story pop up for croissants and coffee, and can one town really be such a founding site of the coffee break?). In the U.S. they still have some of their Jewish background attached but they’re getting less and less ethnic all the time. And here at least, they’re very much just an American food, although bagels strike me as a small part of interrupted Jewish culture making its way back in parts of Europe. Several years ago on a brief visit to Bialystok, Poland – the namesake town of the bagel’s cousin, the bialy, and home to a once-thriving Jewish community – the first place we saw with the breads for sale was called something like New York Bagel.
The round, holey rolls are a better marker of menu globalization than hamburgers. It’s one of those token foods Americans look for when they live abroad. Sure, worldwide people will cite the hamburger when they think of American food, but to heck with that. What they mean is McDonalds, and burgers from McDonalds and its cohorts have become their own category of international food item. They’re not representative of U.S. cuisine, they’re supranational, like pizza.
No, if I’m claiming a burger as my national heritage, then I’m going to try to put my best foot forward. As an American here, people think I know something about hamburgers; I do, but only the one or two bits of knowledge I’ve vaguely managed to remember from newspaper food section “how to make a great hamburger” articles. So for our national culinary representative, I’ll get behind a hamburger that’s one of those home-made, outdoor grilled, handcrafted things. With or without fancy additions to the meat. It should come with a few condescending remarks about how to grill it, and then be served with the disclaimer that the ground beef you can buy abroad is different but will have to do.
But the bagel’s a lot simpler to send out as a standard bearer. Not to mention it’s the centerpiece of brunch, which is a contribution to food culture that ranks right up there with tapas or afternoon tea. Bagels are apparently big in Britain too, because a British friend here turned me on to a bagel source – a grocery story that caters to British expats and carries frozen bagels. So now I can try to do a proper brunch, a concept that needs to be clearly introduced when you spring it on guests in Spain, because it throws off a Spaniards’ whole Sunday meal schedule. It’s a commitment. It takes flexibility. But hey, that’s what adapting is about.

Share  Posted by Deborah Klosky at 2:22 PM | Permalink

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