For me, a bagel is family. Not just any bagel though, a good bagel. When toasted, golden brown with a darkish tinge on the edges, giving a nice crisp in the first bite. Then the middle, a pale beige cushion of soft melt-in-your-mouth dough that soaks in the flavor of whatever shmear you spread on top of it without getting soggy. This bagel, this warm yeasty-smelling bagel, is family.
In a large extended family like mine, every gathering involves food. As Jews, we’re compelled to not only eat food, but discuss food while we eat it. We sit in one meal and discuss the one before it, or plan the next meal we might eat. Every big ceremony, every momentous occasion, is followed by brunch. I can remember back to my baby sister’s naming ceremony on our deck, where we spent an hour proclaiming the wonder of a newborn and all that she brings to the world, and then afterwards my dad and his brothers made pastrami and roast beef sandwiches on rye bread with a little bit of mustard to celebrate, being just as if not more astonished about the quality of deli then the little baby they had just rejoiced over. Birthdays are always about the food we eat on them; cake and ice cream for breakfast. Weddings are judged by the quality of “little hotdogs” and whether the potato knishes had an adequate dough-to-potato ratio. We are nostalgic for the times my uncles would get kicked out of all-you-can-eat buffets for eating too much. Food is the way we remember. My dad can’t tell you what he did yesterday but can detail the food at his wedding with such clarity and passion that you can taste it in your imagination.
Even smaller reunions, just family dinners or Sunday mornings with my brother and sisters, those are accompanied by food. In the house with just us, we do brunch best. We toast bagels like professionals; timing being the most important aspect, and the art of the shmear is our expertise (for the amateurs, it’s all in the wrist). We sit around the house, each eating our respective bagel prepared just the way we like it. With each bite, we can taste the memory of momentous occasions. We feel the love of our family emanating from each mouthful. As we sink our teeth into the heavenly dough, we can project into the future; sitting with our grandparents drinking coffee at the next bar mitzvah, or hanging out with our cousins, watching movies.
I believe in the power of the bagel. It brings me back to my family, to my childhood, and brings me forward to the next time I am surrounded by unconditional love and well-sliced deli meat.
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