My Name Is Bagel

By Corby Kummer
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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 caff├Ęs 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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/05/my-name-is-bagel/18264/