Schmear campaign

Wandering through the bagel-less desert.


In 1859, the United States War Department published The Prairie Traveler, a handbook for westbound pioneers. Author and U.S. Army Capt. Randolph B. Marcy wrote, "Provisions for each grown person … should suffice for 110 days." Besides salt and pepper, coffee and sugar, bacon and beef, Macy advised bringing flour and baking soda and yeast sufficient "for making bread."

Add malt syrup, and Manifest Destiny might have brought bagels to the needy settlements of our great West. But this was not to be.

I love bagels, and I live in Missoula, Mont. This July marks the seventh anniversary of my move. Big Sky Country is beautiful. In terms of bagels, however, it is still a wilderness. And how can you settle somewhere, however wonderful, that does not meet such a basic human need?

We are all tribal, and my tribe believes in bagels. I was initiated in stages, starting when I was six months old. My parents tied string through the middle of a frozen bagel and attached it to my stroller. They pushed, I teethed. By my 10th birthday, I was biking with my father to nearby Skokie, Ill., home of New York Bagel & Bialy. Only a see-through counter separated the small shop's kitchen from its customers. You could almost tap the bakers' shoulders as they dunked plump rings of dough in bubbling pots of water, then shoveled them into a ceiling-high oven. As one heavy door closed, another opened: Finished bagels tumbled into metal baskets placed under the counter.

In those days, each treasure cost 25 cents. The price of 12 bought a baker's dozen. Our "bonus" bagel, invariably poppy, never made it into the bag. I asked to have it handed to me directly over the counter, still alive and steaming.

One afternoon in Missoula, feeling nostalgic, I called my father's cell phone and reached him at a downtown Chicago branch of a nationwide bagel chain, where he had holed up to prepare for an important meeting. "I'm having what they call a bagel, if you know what I mean," he said. I knew what he meant.

It was my decision to move West. It was my problem that the bike ride to New York Bagel & Bialy now stretched 1,600 miles. "Want what you have, give what you need," I was once advised by a bumper sticker. To achieve that enlightened state, would I have to open a Montana bagel bakery?

Making bagels at home is hard. Very hard. The meticulous Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice presents, to my knowledge, the only complete recipe for the prospective amateur bagel baker. It totals eight pages, longer than the United States Constitution and all 27 amendments, longer even than the lyrics to Don McLean's American Pie. Key terms include "hydration range" and "liquid nondiastatic malt." Instruments as imprecise as measuring cups are discouraged. Reinhart recommends, for example, a 57.1:51.3 ratio by weight of water to flour.

And so, for four years, I imported bagels instead. When I visited my family, I brought an extra suitcase, which I filled at New York Bagel & Bialy on my return to the airport. I sliced and froze those bagels the moment I returned home, no matter how tired I was from the multiple long flights. My supply was supposed to last at least six months, but all too often it dwindled precipitously. Sometimes I tried to content myself with simply sniffing the designated bagel suitcase. Long after the myriad other odors had vanished, fragrant whiffs of onion and pumpernickel remained.

Three years ago, I married. Trained as an environmental scientist, Crissie seldom cooks, as cooking is work for the weaker sex. But she, too, has needs. Born and bred in Mississippi, Crissie on occasion craves genuine peach cobbler the way I seek the one true bagel. Exactly one orchard in the entire state of Montana grows peaches to her specifications. Each summer we transfer the entire contents of our joint bank account to that orchard. Crissie cuts and freezes the fruit for year-round access. When appetite moves her, she thaws her prize. She steals my rolling pin and apron. And she bakes.

It's a cliche that cooking is art, and baking is science. Now I had, in my home, a professional. The only question was: How could I convince a 28-year-old former Southern Baptist in Missoula, Mont., to channel her inner Jewish grandmother? Crissie, as ever, cut to the chase. Bring me the recipe, she said.

On my cutting board at the moment are four perfect homemade poppyseed bagels. The kitchen windowsill holds chives to spread into our cream cheese. Ten more bagels hide from me in our basement chest freezer. We are trading them with the Australian owner of a dog-boarding business nestled in the nearby Mission Mountains. An avid fisherman, he smokes his own salmon to make the best of all bagel toppings: lox.

Tribes wander, intermarry, change tastes, and order takeout. But we are what we eat, and people of substance regularly require the sort of food that should never change. I believe that, with bagels, Lewis and Clark might have blazed a trail all the way to Siberia. If I have briefly become a pioneer myself, it is only out of necessity. Life was tougher in the 19th century, and it is tough in the 21st. There are worse problems in the world than making do without bagels. Few are best contemplated before breakfast.

Jeremy N. Smith writes about food and other subjects at

Pity the poor bagel baker
Binky Griptight
Binky Griptight
May 15, 2009 02:47 PM
Yep, making bagels is hard work. Just ask Bagels on Broadway.
Marlee Ostrow
Marlee Ostrow
May 19, 2009 05:56 PM
Bagels on Broadway are bagels for people not raised on bagels, if you know what I mean...
Regional Bagels
May 20, 2009 07:51 AM
Bagels on Broadway bagels and most Missoula bagels are a heck of a lot better than those in Virginia, where I'm currently living. And, Virginia is a heck of a lot closer to New York.
Penelope Blair
Penelope Blair
May 20, 2009 10:01 AM
Oh boo-hoo! I get tired of listening to people complain that the west is not New York! Duh! If New York is so great, why did you leave? Go home to your bagels!
May 20, 2009 12:38 PM
Come on editors. If I want to read about Bagels in Missoula, I'll read NewWest. Could y'all please spend the money you're begging us for on issues more relevant or at least poignant than baked goods.
Try a good sourdough
Sean in Santa Fe
Sean in Santa Fe
May 23, 2009 11:11 PM
I love a good bagel (even as a child in Montana, I knew those frozen things at the grocery store were not the real thing. However, (and this may come as news to you), there are other kinds of bread in the world. Try a good sourdough (yes, even more rare than a "real" bagel, whatever that is), or any number of other breads from different cultural traditions. Why do we have to constantly hear about the "hard time finding real bagels" story. There are far more Polish , Czech, German, Chinese, Brazilian, Indonesian and a thousand other culturally traditions than the less than 1% of the world that is Jewish. A little balance?
Give the guy a break...
Jun 01, 2009 08:17 AM
Nice story. Transplants figure out how to have the foods that reminds them of home. Most of the foods from other cultures can be made at home more easily, it's relatively easy these days to purchase spices and ingredients via the interweb. But you can't grow a fruit in a climate that is not favorable nor spend the many hours required to make a good bagel. These guys are trying to be pioneers, for goodness sakes. Folks from the west tend not to migrate east because there truly no way to move those spectacular mountains, bottle that air or ever see more than a fraction of that big beautiful sky.