Bagel Heritage

Photo by Shoko Yanagawa

For a town our size, we’ve been fortunate to have well-made, fresh and local bagels since 1973. That’s the year Bagels Forever opened its first retail bakery and store on University Avenue. Bagels have been part of the Madison food culture ever since. But it was certainly rare at the time. Even in big cities—especially on the east coast—bagels were part of ethnic heritage, but they were not really mainstream.

Yet here in Madison we had a beloved bagel of our own. We’ve written about Bagels Forever as one of the city’s cheap thrills— infinitely delicious, and still less than forty cents. We even possess a bit of bagel in our upbringing: one of us teethed on a bagel tied to her carriage.

In the early ’80s the bagel boom exploded, and due to various technological advances and the popularity of the high-carbohydrate diet, chain bakeries began to dominate the scene. We saw an influx of at least three chains in Madison, plus a second local baker—Madison Bagels—and they flooded the market. While quite edible in a pinch, we found Brueggers too soft, Einstein’s overly glutinous (chewy), and we don’t even really remember Chesapeake, it came and went so fast.

Fortunately our local Bagels Forever was able to keep its well-turned dough rising, so to speak. It weathered the three chains, and then the low-carb diet to boot. And now Gotham enters the picture. Gotham New York Bagels & Eats opened this spring on East Mifflin Street across from Café Montmartre, and a welcome addition it is, both to the city’s bagel mix and to the Capitol Square. First, we are glad for local ownership. Gotham is owned by MATC culinary program professor Joe Gaglio and Ian Gurfield of Ian’s Pizza. Second, we appreciate the nod to authenticity. These are well-made, New York–style bagels—big, fat, hand-rolled, and fun to eat with the right amount of chew.

Bagels differ from other bread by virtue of a boiling before baking process (in addition to being round with a hole, of course). At a bagel’s heart is flour, water, salt and yeast. Some bakers add sugar, some use more high-gluten flour. The most memorable we’ve had was in Montreal, which is famous for its version made with malt and egg and without salt. These bagels were hand rolled, placed on a long paddle for their boiling bath in honey- sweetened water, then popped into the oven while we watched. Of course, egg bagels are a New York-style staple as well—the addition of the egg makes them a little more “cakey.”

The depth of a bagel’s taste can be created by the fermentation process as well as adding flavors. Because of the laborious process some bakers have cut corners. Many chains have a centralized dough making operation and then ship the frozen dough to retail outlets for baking. Some bakeries don’t boil first but use a device that shoots steam into the oven. Typical signs of this process are a smaller hole and a breadier consistency.

Of course, some bakers add all kinds of ingredients, like blueberries, which shouldn’t be in a bagel. But then rye is hardly a traditional ingredient, and we love the ones at Bagels Forever.

Gotham turns out all the standards: plain, poppy, sesame, pumpernickel and egg, along with the now-common cinnamon raisin, garlic, whole wheat, and “everything.” There are the usual cream cheeses and spreads (we appreciate the use of artisan cream cheese) along with soups and sandwiches. But it’s all about the bagels for us—sesame and cinnamon raisin are our best picks—and Gotham is a worthy addition to a proud bagel heritage in Manhattan by the Lake.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to

Madison Magazine - August 2007
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