Monday, April 27, 2009

Existential Bagel Crisis

A Jewish colleague at work declared that a certain local bagel shop had the best and most authentic bagels in the metro area. He said that this was not just his idea but the settled opinion of the entire Jewish community. The standard of authenticity was whether or not the dough was boiled before being baked in the oven. Boiling is the standard practice in New York (the "old country") and imparts a firm crust that contrasts nicely with the chewy interior.

I was sufficiently curious about the purported excellence of this bagel shop that I drove there yesterday afternoon to buy a pumpernickel bagel and judge for myself. I parked in front of The Bagel Store, an unassuming shop at the end of a strip mall, and went inside. Two relaxed young clerks were sweeping up, getting ready to close for the day. I looked over the bins and was pleased to discover a few remaining pumpernickel bagels. One of the clerks set his broom aside and came to the counter. We chatted for a bit. He told me about the bialys, a Polish roll similar to a bagel but with a depression instead of a hole, the depression typically being filled with shredded onion or garlic. Food history is a fascinating subject. By the way, a quick look for "pumpernickel" on Wikipedia gave me the following fanciful citation:

"The Philologist Herr Johann Christoph Adelung states about the Germanic origin of the word that, in the vernacular, Pumpen was a New High German synonym for being flatulent, a word similar in meaning to the English "fart", and "Nickel" was a form of the name Nicholas, an appellation commonly associated with a goblin or devil (e.g., "Old Nick", a familiar name for Satan), or more generally for a malevolent spirit or demon. (Cf. also the metal nickel, probably named for a demon that would "change" or contaminate valuable copper with this strange metal that was much harder to work.) Hence, pumpernickel is described as the "devil's fart", a definition accepted by the Stopes International Language Database, the publisher Random House, and by some English language dictionaries, including the Merriam-Webster Dictionary."

The clerk sold me the pumpernickel bagel; we wished each other a good day; and I went out into the fresh air to conduct my test. The bagel was shapely and quite smooth, a consequence of the boiling I suppose. I put tooth to bagel. The first impression was favorable: the crust was firm and buckled slightly under pressure. The interior was dense and chewy. No air bubbles disturbed the texture. It was a successful bagel. Yet something was missing: the pungency (or Germanic flatulence) of the rye.

I began to wonder: what if the boiling process robbed the rye of its bite? What if authenticity and full rye flavor were mutually exclusive? What if I hungered for something that could not logically exist? I could conceive of a perfect boiled pumpernickel bagel; but if its essence precluded its ontological foundation, this imaginary bagel would not be a "thing in itself" but rather an emblem of my own solipsism. My thesis and antithesis would be irreconcilable. And so, failing at Hegelian synthesis, I tumbled into a bagelian existential crisis. (It's fun to string together philosophy words.)

Fortunately, this troubled state of mind was short-lived. My philosophical food crisis dissipated with the last mouthful of the pumpernickel bagel. No, I thought, hope is better than despair. I prefer to believe that there is a perfect New York-style pumpernickel bagel somewhere in the world and someday I will find it!