My Name Is Bagel

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kummer may26 bagelhamsign.jpg

Photo by Corby Kummer

Coming home from Italy last month I was startled to see this sign dangling above one of the Autogrill food stands that, sadly, have infiltrated Rome's Fiumicino airport--once the home, like most Italian airports, of a few independent caffès and sandwich shops. Now all but the one or two I had time to find (and, in fact, I had a lot of time, and enjoyed wheeling my bags up and down many mazelike, shop-lined corridors) are run by Autogrill, familiar to anyone who's driven on any Italian highway. If only the coffee and croissants were better! The Italian genius of croissants transformed it into something both called brioche and resembling a brioche more than a croissant not in appearance but in a less-rich, less-flaky, more-digestible dough. Not at Autogrill, where utterly bland, greasy shortening rules the bad baked goods, including fairly awful "muffins."

And now they can ruin something else. This time at least with a sense of humor, however inadvertent. Autogrill has decided that Italians are ready for the Jewish exoticism of, gasp, the bagel--something so unfamiliar that the placard has the round object introducing itself ("My name is bagel") and giving a pronunciation key in capital letters. The usual way to pronounce the word would be "bah-GEL," so this tells Italians to say "BEGOL," which still doesn't get the accent on the first syllable but does render the long "a" sound.

That's about all it will get right. We won't even talk about the fluffy, degraded, sesame-flecked rolls that pass for bagels throughout the world--this is just another one, typically with way too much yeast, way too soft a texture, and too much shortening in the dough. No surprise, really, and the sign even brags that it's "Soft." (The real surprise was a hard, tough-to-chew, slightly sour, not-enormous bagel I had at Joan Nathan's house the day before Passover--not of course that it was at an ur-maven's house but that the house was in Washington, and this was the closest I'd come in a long time to a real New York bagel. The source, she and the Gefilte Shticks said in a didn't-you-know tone, is Bethesda Bagels.)

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Photo by Corby Kummer

Even I was surprised by the introductory pairing. Italians know from smoked salmon--you find it in numerous restaurants, and on antipasto platters, and chefs are even curing it themselves. Lox, maybe not so much. Cream cheese? Well, Autogrill did pick one of the closest equivalents, spreadable robiola. But for the filling? Something that kind of looks like lox but is...good old prosciutto! The cooked "Prague" kind that we, and they, get in luncheon-meat packs, not the cured prosciutto we all revere (even when faced with some startling information about the current cult object, Jamon Iberico de maybe-imported bellota). With curly lettuce yet. A bargain, at least by airport-sandwich standards, at about $6.25.

No reason Italians should demand something kosher on their bagels, I suppose, though you might think that in introducing an ethnic food with a government-style stamp saying "TRADITIONAL" they could adhere slightly more closely to tradition. It did ring a bell, one from the Episcopalian high school I went to. One night at dinner during Passover, I asked for matzoh and a worker said "We've got something for Passover!" and vanished. A minute later he came back triumphant, bearing a plate with: a bagel.

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.
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