Arts & Culture

The Search for the Perfect Bagel Is More Meaningful than You’d Think

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Upon moving to Virginia after four years in New York City, I understand the difficulty of finding a NYC bagel outside the city.

I’ve read all the theories about why bagels aren’t the same elsewhere, and whether it is the hardness of NYC water, differing baking methods, or just the recipe, they all fail to explain why bagels just aren’t the same outside the city limits.

My wife and I have exhausted the local bagel joints in Northern VA searching for the perfect one. While we have had a decent bagel or two, the only perfect bagels we’ve had in Virginia have been hand delivered by my sister who lives in Brooklyn.

That said, when I saw an article by Elizabeth Weil in the New York Times Magazine about the difficulty of finding a good bagel outside the city, I was intrigued.

While I didn’t find a good explanation for why the NYC bagel is impossible to recreate outside the five boroughs, I found something much more fascinating: an exploration of the role food plays in our call to community.

Weil’s article focuses on Wise Sons, a Jewish Deli striving to make a NYC bagel in San Francisco. Weil interviews Rabbi Michael Lezak about dining at Wise Sons and the role food plays in his community.

Lezak makes an observation we should heed. Food is a great entry point into community. It is much less intimidating to ask someone to meet you for lunch than to go to temple, he says, explaining that,

Food is an easy vehicle; it’s a great first step…If we make a commitment to meet for lunch once a week at Wise Sons, you tell me about who is alive in your family and who is not, what your life is about. That summons us toward something greater.

The ability of food to bring us back to a past time and place is what lends it so much power. In Lezak’s words, “Food can resuscitate your dead grandmother.”

For me, eating a piece of chocolate chip pound cake brings me right back to lunches at my grandmother’s house. For someone dining at Wise Sons, the matzo ball soup could recall memories of sitting around the table celebrating Passover with family and close friends.

Despite that power, recalling is as far as it can take us. It can gather people at the table, providing perfect atmosphere, but it is still just a vehicle. It takes two people sitting down to share the soup or pound cake to hold the conversation that builds relationships and ushers in community.

We see this in the early church. Acts 2:46 records how fellowship around the table was an important part of the fledgling Christian community:

Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with his people.

Community was built around the table.

So today, as you grab your lunch from the fridge at work or put on your jacket to head out for lunch, resist the urge to retreat back to your cubicle and instead spend lunch breaking bread, or burritos if Chipotle is nearby, with someone else.

While you’re at it, keep an eye out for that perfect bagel and let me know where you find it. Bonus points if it is in Northern VA or DC.

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