Houma bagels make Big Apple grade

At the Library in September
August 30, 2013
Copeland’s: Cuisine the way Al Sr. intended
August 30, 2013
At the Library in September
August 30, 2013
Copeland’s: Cuisine the way Al Sr. intended
August 30, 2013

It stands to reason that claims of a bagel sold in Houma, La being New York as the IRT subway line could push the limits of culinary truth into the realm of hubris.

It could be risky as labeling your seafood gumbo “Louisiana Cajun” at a restaurant somewhere in Indiana or Minnesota.

N.Y. Bagel Cafe and Deli on Barrow Street makes the claim without apology, however, and so the only course of action here at Gumbo was to put the bagels to the ultimate test.

Literally sparing no expense, we overnighted four N.Y. Bagel Cafe bagels to the home of Bill Glasser in Jackson Heights, N.Y., which is in the borough of Queens.

For decades this bearded, wise-cracking, irreverent food-service professional has fed matzot, gefilte fish, kreplach and everything Jewish-food related to hungry Big Apple minions, first as a Kosher caterer attached to a Queens temple, and later as a baker and seller of bagels. That was at Ess-a-Bagel in Manhattan, home of what is considered a fine specimen of New York bagel.

For a number of years the high-profile bagelmesiter prognosticated and philosophized on the nature of bagels and lessons of life on a local New York City radio program, as Uncle Bill from Ess-a-Bagel. Now retired at the age of 78, he agreed to take on the task of evaluating the so-called New York bagel from the New York Bagel Cafe.

At first he was reluctant.

“Impossible,” he said. “You cannot have a New York bagel in Louisiana because you don’t have New York water. And without New York water a bagel is not a bagel. I am not going to waste my time with this.”

As a life-long family friend he agreed, however, and after unpacking the overnight doughy samples Uncle Bill rendered a verdict.

“It’s a little sweet, sweeter than I am used to,” Uncle Bill said. The sweetness may have been related to the Gumbo staff’s unwitting packaging of an onion bagel and an everything bagel along with the sesame and plain samples that were shipped. Onions tend to hit the sweet-sensors on taste buds hard, and the onion taste may have permeated the others.

But he pronounced the bagels authentic, which was good enough for us. 

The next step was to contact the owners of the shop, and ask how this miracle was made possible.

As everyone knows, Houma water primarily comes from Bayou Lafourche, a water body whose name they can’t even pronounce in New York, let alone find on a map.

Sonya Ohlmeyer of Schriever, who spends back-breaking days at the shop with partner Tracey Hebert, spent a few minutes talking about what is becoming a success story, giving up a prized secret that helped everything make sense.

The New York bagels at New York Bagels taste like New York bagels because, Ohlmeyer said, New York is precisely where they are born.

The Davidovich Bakery in Woodside, Queens, just a short jog from Uncle Bill’s house in Jackson Heights – they even share a zip code – is where the New York bagels for New York Bagels start out.

Just like bagels from any other well-maintained bagel store in New York, the bagel capital of the world, the bagels that end up in Houma are hand rolled, allowed to rest in their uncooked state, then boiled in that New York water and finally baked.

They are then shipped fresh each day to Barrow Street. So the bagels that Uncle Bill got to taste were actually round-trip bagels, having gone from New York to Louisiana and then back to their birthplace.

Ohlmeyer said word of the bagels’ goodness is getting out, and that the restaurant is doing well. But now she is trying to acquaint visitors with other items on the menu, especially panini and classic New York-style sandwiches like the Reuben.

To really keep up the New York theme, however, we thought she might want to invest in having the help get more familiar with some terminology.

On our visit to buy bagels we asked the young woman behind the counter – a pleasant local girl full of smiles and courtesy – for a lightly toasted bagel with a shmear.

She looked puzzled. So we translated.

A shmear, as Big Apple-philes know, is a spread of cream cheese on the bagel.

Some time watching a few reruns of Seinfeld could definitely help.

Glynn Voisin Jr., a worker at N.Y. Bagel Cafe and Deli in Houma, selects a bagel. Seeking to independently verify the veracity of the restaurant’s namesake claim, Gumbo shipped four bagels to the “bagelmeister” in New York.