I don't remember the first time I ate a bagel. Just like a bowl of cheerios, a glass of orange juice, and hard candies in the living room candy dish, bagels were always just there. I ate plain bagels with butter, poppy seed bagels with cream cheese, sesame seed bagels with tuna fish, and I packed a bagel with bologna sandwich for most days of my junior high and high school life. Many family gatherings and Yom Kippur breakfasts featured a no-holds-barred bagel spread. I didn't know that with each bite of bagel I swallowed I was adding another layer of judgement into my culinary standards, dooming myself to ever be satisfied by a bagel once I left the Greater New York area.
I do remember the first time I ate a bagel somewhere other than New York. It was in 1987 in Lexington, Kentucky. During college I spent a semester in Barbourville Kentucky attending Union College, a small Methodist college in the Appalachian mountains. After a few weeks in Barbourville, some new acquaintances invited me to join them at a church services. It was an intense and cinematic experience with the preacher striding up and down the aisle, thumping a bible and shouting that if 'you don't accept Jesus Christ as your savior you will burn in hell.' It seemed to me that he was looking at me in particular, which led (domino effect style) to the Lexington bagel. First, I decided I wanted to attend Rosh Hashanah services and needed to find a synagogue. Second, I asked the campus minister if he knew where I might find one. Third, the man loved a challenge and found me a Jewish family in Lexington to spend the holiday at their home. Fourth, I could not say no since he was so pleased with himself and the family was waiting for me. Fifth, I drove two hours to spend half the weekend living with strangers. Sixth, after a lengthy Rosh Hashanah service and a great deal of small talk we finally sat down to the holiday bagel spread. The cream cheese and chives were there. The cucumber was there. The lox was there. Tuna fish and tomatoes. The bagels were there. All as it should be. But the bagels were not quite right. I didn't know then that I was expecting a bagel whose production technique came from Polish Jewish immigrants who baked and sold bagels on the Lower East Side in the late 1800s. I didn't know anything about how a great bagel was made - that there must be a cold fermentation process and bagels must be boiled in malt syrup flavored water before baking. All I knew is what I tasted - and it was not a perfectly crispy crust exterior with a flavorful and chewy interior.
The bagel brunch lasted for hours so I got a late start back to Barbourville. The local high school was having a haunted house fundraiser that night and I had signed up to volunteer. By the time I got there the only job left was the one no-one wanted. So I got in costume to be a ghoulish mourner weeping over the death of my husband, who had the body of a mannequin and the head of a freshly slaughtered cow head stripped of its skin. I spent three hours in a small room and by the end of the first hour the heat from the desk lamp started to cook the flesh of the cow's head. In the second hour the rancid smell got to be to much and I rushed out to the parking lot and got rid of whatever remained in my stomach of the Lexington bagels. After a drink of water, I walked back into the haunted house, finished up my shift and have not had a bagel made in Lexington ever since.