You might not associate semi-rural Texas with bagels and cream cheese.
Growing up in New York City, practically living off these daily or at least several times weekly, being distantly Jewish (great-grandmother was Jewish from Poland), and for a long time living about three blocks from bagel heaven (Zabar’s), I developed a certain…let’s say opinion (arrogance)…about what makes a good bagel and what constitutes fair game for cream cheese.
And while you’re walking around downtown Kerrville, stop in to get what is probably the best combo in the area. It’s not like NYC, but it’s pretty dadgum good.
Bagels in Kerrville, Texas
In the first part of the 19th century, shingle-maker Joshua Brown (nee “Braun”), a Jewish man, brought settled his family in Kerrville. He’d ship his cypress shingles to San Antonio, an hour south by car, back then traveling through Comanche territory. Braun was friends with James Kerr, a major in the Texas Revolution and friend of Braun. (source: Kosher Delight)
I take comfort knowing that Kerrville has some street cred when it comes to bagels because of Mr. Braun.
Real “bagel” or not?
Now we get down to the nitty-gritty.
When discussing bagels and cream cheese, first we should tackle the obvious heavyweight in the equation: the bagels.
And when it comes to bagels, it’s mostly if not all about the water. Water and also how they’re cooked: steamed, boiled, wood-fired. Despite articles to the contrary stating that in-kitchen experiments have debunked the myth that higher levels of calcium make the gluten in bagels tougher, therefore harder al dente — and Texas has its fair share of calcium in the water — I’ll throw in with the likes of Reader’s Digest, which rightly says that not only calcium but magnesium content in water make or break bagels’ softness.
RD also comments on another key aspect of bagel-making: the true way to use the dough is to boil it. If you go to a street food cart in New York City, you will pay less for a bagel (you can usually get a bagel with butter and a small coffee for $1.50 to $2.00), but you will have an Imitation Bagel. Food carts use steamed bagels. This is an abomination.
Even PAX, my favorite place in Kerrville for bagels and cream cheese, uses bagels from Boss Bagels, which uses a wood-fired process. This sounds good to the naked ear but, Readers beware, it does not produce a true bagel.
The best bagels in NYC — which I would have gladly had shipped to Kerrville — were made by H&H Bagels, now closed. Yet you can still get the real deal at Absolute Bagels in Morningside Heights, just south of Columbia University, at Zabar’s (which, importantly for some, has kosher foods), or at a number of places around the city. You might wonder how this helps you, now that you’re in Kerrville. Well, you have access at least to wood-fired bagels, and you will still enjoy them quite a bit, guaranteed.
Now let’s do some straight talk about the flavor or types of bagels:
- Plain. Always the best. Pure, elegant solution and what you’d want if topping it with salmon, capers, and cream cheese. (Maybe with a little red onion as well.)
- Sesame. Also a classic, probably best only with cream cheese.
- Everything. Ab.So.LUTELY!
- Poppy. Sure.
- Salt. Out of style by health nuts but traditional and for the strong of heart.
- Pumpernickel, Cinnamon raisin, Whole Wheat. We are getting into a gray area here, because now we are modernizing and innovating, which is quite dangerous when dealing with the simple innocence of the “O” dough.
- Jalapeño. Only in Texas. And only once in a blue moon.
- Gluten-free. I understand some must, but don’t fool yourself.
- Blueberry, Chocolate Chip. Please leave the premises.
- Rainbow and the like. Shot at dawn.
Bialis are cousins of bagels and should be toasted and sliced, with butter.
And while we’re on the subject of toasting, slicing, and condiments, let us move to cream cheese.
Just as there are certain varieties of bagels that are OK, others that are “Hmm…” and yet others that are a Bozo no-no, there also are cream cheese that pass and those that fail. And fail big.
- Plain. Yes and yes.
- Plain with chopped scallions. OK.
- Garlic or some derivative like that. OK.
- Onion or Caramelized onion. Yum.
- Strawberry. We’ll stop there before my blood pressure skyrockets.
There should be a LOT of cream cheese applied, and done so with a palette knife not unlike an artist would use, because the end result of each creation is just as pleasant for consumption.
This brings us to our next topic: something called a “schmear.” Those interested in etymology, fasten your seat belts.
The Yiddish word schmear (/SHmir/, from shmirn), as most of us use it today, has retained largely only one of its two original meanings. Its primary meaning is, “a corrupt or underhanded inducement; a bribe.” The verb form meant to “flatter, or grease” (as in palms). Today’s teens and 20-somethings might say instead, “You’re biggin’ him up.” Brown-nosing. You get the picture. (Or, hopefully, maybe not.)
The point is, a “schmear” is not a slight compliment. Nor is it oblique, subtle, or roundabout. Neither is it an insinuation, a muttering, or a lullaby sung in sotto voce.
Rather, it is pronounced, clarion, unmistakable as being a remark meant obviously to curry favor and receive a desired outcome. Stentorian in delivery. Your palm is clearly covered in grease. The schmear should have me staggering backwards from the initial impact and licking the edges of the hot bagel before the flattery drips from them, and using my napkin to make sure the greasy marks are no longer visible at the corners of my mouth.
A bagel without a true schmear is like a soprano without a high note, Marilyn Monroe without a mole, BB King without a graveling voice and Lucille strung around his neck. Suffice it to say, it ain’t a real bagel.
Plain, toasted, schmear, cut in half
Here’s the recipe for a true bagel experience, which PAX does almost to a “T”: plain bagel, toasted, with a schmear of plain cream cheese, sandwiched again — NOT left open face — then cut across the diameter.
If left open face, then feel free to top with salmon, red onion, and capers, as PAX does so well.
Enjoy, and we’ll see you on Earl Garrett Street.
All photos by author except where otherwise noted.