The smell of bagels is permanently lodged in my olfactory memory bank. It is a smell that I have been neglected of since I moved to Chicago from New Jersey years ago. A few months ago my girlfriend brought home some bagels. I had grown to loathe bagels and I ignored the bag she plopped on the kitchen table...thinking it was a batch of Chicago bagels...essentially an inedible and tasteless mass of Wonderbread shaped in an "O". But soon a familiar smell wafted past my nose...a smell that brought back waves of memories and a healthy rumble in my stomach...those are BAGELS! REAL BAGELS! It is a very distinctive smell- doughy, slightly sweet and always accompanied by the scent of a well-worn paper bag.
I have a very nostalgic and emotional relationship to bagels. In high school I had a group of girlfriends that worked at my town's bagel shop (they only hired teenage girls). It was a dumpy little strip mall storefront that just had the bare essentials- bins of bagels, a couple pots of coffee and a small deli case for lox, cream cheese and butter. Customers rarely came in- giving us free reign of the place to use as our little clubhouse. Every day after school I would hang out and stock up on bagels...breeding a ridiculous fanaticism. I always had a paper bag of them in my backpack, eating them as I spent hours roaming around town and exploring the woods. Pumpernickel! Sesame Seed! Even a plain bagel was enough for me. I ate at least five bagels a day. A surplus would often accumulate in my school locker, many of them hardening into a concrete that would smash into many pieces when you threw them against the wall.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Chicago and bit into the region's bagel! A bagel shop underneath the El tracks by Wrigley Field came highly recommended and I immediately hopped on the train to hunt it down. Unfortunately, what my mouth was greeted with was a puffy and elastic ball of dough. I should have known better when I saw that they offered chocolate chip, blueberry and pumpkin varieties. A bagel is not a muffin! A bagel is not simply a surface to smear cream cheese upon! A bagel is the product of a highly refined recipe and cooking process passed down through hundreds of years- resulting in a bread product whose flavor is rich but simple and a texture that is always challenging. I don't need a goddamn thing on my bagel and honestly, I find bagels most delicious when they are a couple days old and slightly hard.
This obsession with bagels grew around the same time I developed a very regimented vegetarian diet based on a mild case of OCD. I ate a bowl of Grape Nuts at 6:30, a cheese sandwich at noon and a can of peas at 5:30. The times had to be exact- through trial and error I had concluded that this food combination and schedule would make me function well and look good the following day. I had too many days of girls saying "eeeww" as I rode my bike past them...I knew I was all puffy and retaining water from the ham I ate the previous day. I always had dark circles under my eyes, my head was cloudy, my hair was frizzy. I was previously following a different OCD diet of meat and soda. I would broil a hamburger at 6 pm and drink soda and smoke cigarettes until 2 am. This was a formula I stumbled on when I had a good day and tried to deduct why I had a good day. It was obviously due to what I ate the previous day- meat and soda. I sometimes substituted pork chops and steak for hamburger but ham was always off-limits...too much water retention. But after a year, the diet wasn't working; it wasn't solving my problems...so I started the new vegetarian regiment. I didn't view it so much as OCD but as scientific deduction and prediction and a self-imposed discipline that I never had in my life. Why I didn't apply this new discipline to school, I don't know.
The new vegetarian diet would pass through phases and the nightly can of peas would soon change (through more meticulous deduction) into a bowl of raw pumpkin pie filling. Bagels were just the next phase and with them came the realization that girls didn't think I was gross and icky anymore...my OCD diet was really working. I then started going out with one of the bagel girls, Melanie.
Bagels equal first love in my mind. One night, Melanie and I walked home after her shift and we stopped by the duck pond. We hid out underneath the decrepit wood plank bridge to escape the oncoming spring rain. We noticed a bloated carcass of a raccoon bobbing in the sludgy water a few yards from our feet...the duck pond was constantly polluted, factories were always dumping toxic shit upstream, so it was no surprise to see dead animals and fish littering the pond's surface. We then kissed...our first kiss. Afterwards we broke out some bagels to toast our new relationship. Bagels equal sex! Bagels equal sex! Of course!
Moving to the Midwest, I guess you can say, if you follow my inane and ridiculous logic at the time, castrated me. I no longer had the food that defined my sexuality! I fell into a dry spell for many years, eventually substituting other foods for my much-loved bagels.
But now...that bag of bagels that my girlfriend plopped on the kitchen table...all these memories came crashing at me just by the smell. I haven't smelled that smell in years. But how do they taste? oooh...like the real thing! I ate the entire bag in a couple hours. They came from a shop here in Chicago called "NY Style Bagels" (duh). They supposedly import water from New York to get the flavor right...while I don't really believe this, the bagel shop is pretty consistent with its east coast bagel flavor and texture. Unfortunately, I have been trying to cut down on wheat lately, so I can't indulge as much as I would like. This "no-wheat" rule is my new OCD diet and eggs and Kefir is my new sexuality.