As he tries to soldier on without his favourite bagels, DAN COLEMAN has one last chat with bagel meister Zev Forman about why the New York ones are so special
WHAT IS IT THAT makes New York so quintessentially Jewish? Woody Allen spent the opening minutes of his 1979 film Manhattan repeatedly trying to answer that question, only to land on a montage of images backed by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin being as iconic a New Yorker for the first half of the 20th century as Allen himself was for the second half.
Two films, Joan Macklin Silver’s Crossing Delancy and Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle, make a case for the kosher dill pickle. But few yearn for a New York pickle. No, among all the landmarks, eateries, and personalities, it is the lowly bagel which gets the bragging rights.
Just ask Jerry Seinfeld, whose famous Festivus episode (Seinfeld, season 9, episode 10) was largely filmed at New York’s H&H Bagels (motto: “like no other bagel in the world”) where Kramer is employed to no good end.
Most bagels in Australia are loaded with sugar to make them rise faster and are steamed to make them soft and easy to chew.
Ask Larry David, whose eponymous “Larry David Sandwich” (Curb Your Enthusiasm, season 5, episode 1) places smoked sable, whitefish salad and more between the halves of a toasted bagel.
Or, ask Mel Brooks who, in a 2004 interview, “infuriated Toronto’s Jewish community by saying he chose New York over Toronto to film The Producers because New York bagels are better.”
Or ask me.
It was back in 2013, as a homesick expat, that I discovered Zev Forman’s 5 & Dime Bagels at the Elwood Farmers Market. From the first whiff of fresh bagel aroma and my first bite into Zev’s “everything” bagel, I was transported back to what still felt like home. Indeed, 5 & Dime characterised itself as “New York born; Melbourne bred”.
“What’s the big deal?” some Australian Jews might object. “Aren’t there bagels available throughout Caulfield and Balaclava.”
No disrespect to our industrious bakers but putting a hole in a roll does not a bagel make. As the New Jersey-born Forman told Inside Melbourne, “I’ve tried to show people what a traditional bagel is. I’m still trying to teach them… Most bagels in Australia are loaded with sugar to make them rise faster and are steamed to make them soft and easy to chew.”
Forman’s bagels take a full 48 hours to rise, hand roll, boil, and finally, bake.
Forman’s bagels, by contrast, take a full 48 hours to rise, hand roll, boil, and, finally, bake.
Forman goes on to explain “the best way to learn what makes a great bagel is to come into the bakery and ask for whatever is hot out of the oven and have that fresh with cream cheese. It’s magical.”
Sadly, that magic is to be no more. On March 25, Forman announced that, under a mountain of pandemic-induced debt, a liquidator had been appointed and 5 & Dime would be closing down. Forman characterised the decision as the culmination of “a stressful couple of years”.
Forman agrees that bagels are the quintessential expression of the New York Jewish sensibility. “For sure,” he told me in a recent interview,” they go hand in hand. There’s bagels and there’s deli. Jews who never spent a moment in shul know bagels and lox.”
In the early 1900s, millions of Jews immigrated to the US from central and eastern Europe. They were greeted by hundreds of bagel bakers organised in Bagel Bakers Local 338, thus establishing a tradition that became part and parcel of the Jewish experience and as much an American pleasure as a Seinfeld episode or a Mel Brooks film.
Zev’s experience is far from unique when he describes bagels as “an integral part of growing up for me. Whether at home with my parents, down at my grandparents’ shore house with all my cousins, at shul as a kid, every major event had bagels, such a major part of growing up Jewish in America.
“When I got to Australia, it was something I missed that tied me to home.”
Already a baker, the step to establishing 5 & Dime was, for Forman, both a practical one and a work of love.
Afficionados of the bagel might wonder how an authentic New York bagel could possibly be made in Melbourne. After all, as New York’s Schmegel’s Bagels puts it, “one of the reasons that NYC bagels have such a great taste is because of the state’s water… [which is] infused with rich minerals”.
Forman, not surprisingly, disagrees. “The key is the water but not the water you put in the bagel. It’s the water you boil the bagels in. That process is what makes a real New York bagel. There are plenty of crappy bagels made with New York water and some fantastic bagels made without it.”
I asked Zev where, without 5 & Dime, Melbournians can get their New York fix. He suggested the deli style eatery Bowery to Williamsburg and the pizza at Sunnyside Slice in Mentone or Slice Shop in Footscray. “But,” he sadly acknowledged, “no one is doing New York bagels.”
The best alternative, he suggests, is the Montreal-style bagels available at Mile End in Brunswick.
5 & Dime Bagels will be missed, often by customers who took their bagels for granted as they served as essential ingredients for sandwiches across Melbourne, from the CBD’s Bowery to Williamsburg, to Lumberjack Café in Richmond, to Malvern’s Stan’s Deli. The gap may be filled by ciabatta or a couple of slices of sourdough but it won’t be the same.
Or, if you lean left politically, you might console yourself with a croissant. According to late-night comic Jimmy Fallon “Republicans are more likely to have a doughnut for breakfast, while Democrats prefer to eat bagels and croissants.”
Meanwhile, Zev Forman recommends the bagels at Bagelsmith in Brooklyn, NY. That’s a long way to go just for a sandwich but, without 5 & Dime, some of us just might get that desperate.
Photo: Zev Forman behind the counter at 5 & Dime Bagels