Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Bagel envy

I learned a good lesson from my father: Take pleasure in the little things in life. This one piece of advice has served me very well.

As I'm prone to melancholy (ok, it's just depression), the ability to still marvel over the first hummingbird of the season, drinking at the feeder (yesterday) or swoon over opening a new fragrance in a tiny 1ml vial (yesterday, again) is truly a gift. However, I am equally given to feeling terribly disappointed over the smallest things, like not having a box of new fragrance swaps in my mailbox (today).

Yes. Yes. You are wondering what this has to do with my title, "Bagel envy". If you've been reading my blog, you should be quite used to my wandering mind by now! It's hard to rein myself in, nor do I want to, so stand by as I'm having technical difficulties. My sudden lurches from subject to subject; well, think of them as station breaks or public service announcements (or whatever you wish).

Getting back to my father, as I've said, I'm grateful for this small lesson he taught me. My father indoctrinated me with so many horrendously negative ideas about the world, that it is near to astounding that I came away with any ability to function without being in a constant state of panic.

Lesson one: People are stupid, especially Americans, and we will use an atomic bomb that destroys a large portion of the planet, in my lifetime. This is the only way stupid people will "learn".

Lesson two: Lurking in the heart of every person is a potential Hitler. All people are phonies. Watch out. Trust no one. Do not even trust yourself, for reality is not something we can understand fully.

Lesson three: If you are not a beautiful, tall and thin woman you better be extremely interesting to talk to or you will never get a date, never mind find a partner. And if you do find a partner, he will always lust after the beautiful, tall and thin women (did I mention they needed high heels and big breasts, too, or is that a given?)

Lesson four: You will never succeed in life. Everything is stacked against you.

Lesson five: Enjoy the small things, like a good bagel, for there's really nothing else to do, given the above.

Thank goodness I latched onto Lesson five! However, I learned it the hard way.

On a typical Sunday, like many New Yorkers, we would have brunch. This would be preceded by further typical New Yorker activities, namely, going to the corner store to pick up the Sunday Times (hoping one got there in time and that the few remaining bundles held a magazine section still), and getting bagels. We bought bagels from Tabatchnicks, which now sells "Jewish Food" in the frozen food aisle at Walmart.

You need to realize that back then, bagels were not ubiquitous. In fact, when I went to school in Massachusetts, no one I met even knew what they were. They were still a "Jewish food item" (from Tabatchnicks, naturally), and given to a bit of suspicion after description. "Why do they have a hole in them?" "What's wrong with an English Muffin?"

Well, back in New York, we ate bagels every Sunday. Sometimes we had bialys. These have not caught on and one can't find them at the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru. Too bad, for they are wonderful. They are rather like a squashed bagel without a hole in the center. Instead, the center has a bit of onions on it and they are generally dusted with a bit of flour. A miniature pizza, perhaps, but without the cheese and sauce.

Okay, forget about the bialys, They are but a detour from this story (though I do miss them on occasion, along with knishes, Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, Katz's deli corned beef sandwiches and eating in Chinatown). Ah, New York food. . .

Well, we've come home from our trip to the shops for Sunday Brunch supplies. We've got our New York Times, our bagels, perhaps some lox, creamed cheese, orange juice and whatever my mother has whipped up to make sure we don't starve to death. You'd think we didn't eat during the rest of the week the way my mother carried on with huge omelettes, blintzes or crepes when she was in an adventurous mood.

My mother would set the table just so. Martha Stewart would have approved. We were not allowed to put any cartons on the table. The orange juice and milk would go into pitchers. Butter would not just sit on a butter dish. Oh no! It had to be compressed into little tureens and then lovingly smoothed or swirled on the top. My mother would go completely crazy if anyone dared to put something as gauche as a paper bag (bagels came in them) or a carton (where milk is usually stored) on that table. Maybe she had OCD. I don't know. But if she got upset, then my father would get upset. He'd do his usual thing, blink his eyes a little too fast and not say a word. The paper would be in front of his face. I swear to you - one time he was so angry he sat in the living room, blinking his eyes and keeping absolutely mum (which was creepy, for he was such a big talker) and I noticed something was amiss - the newspaper was upside down! Yes, I finally realized he did it on purpose. The bastard was torturing us with his mood. He would always finally break down with this utterance, "For Christ's sake, stop making a federal case out of it!" It didn't matter what was going on. This was always his first and final word on the subject.

Oh, and after that, my parents would argue. How they would argue! I don't recall a single word they said. It was all noise to me. But even though they argued, if it was brunch time, they would keep on eating. If they weren't arguing, my father would enjoy this meal with absolute relish. He sometimes would be in such high spirits that he'd draw cartoon faces on the hard boiled eggs. I neither wanted to break the spell of cheerfulness (for his drawings were always amusing) nor break the egg. So my mother would usually have to do it for me while I put my hands over my eyes. I was such a melodramatic child!

My mother and I would eat normally, though she hardly ever sat down for more than a minute or two. Yes, she must have had OCD - no other explanation makes sense. If a plate was dirty and was no longer being used, she had to whisk it off the table. She was always scurrying around, making sure the butter was still looking good in its little pot, rearranging what was left of everything so it still was just so. And if it was, she'd walk around the house straightening the paintings. No a-kilter paintings in our house, no sir-ee-bob!

My father took his time eating. He didn't cut a bagel up like a normal person. He cut it into little coin shaped pieces. On every piece, he would put something different. A bit of whitefish on one, a bit of cream cheese on another. A bit of lox on one coin of pumpernickel and a bit of lox on an onion bagel. You do the math; four or five different kinds of bagels and at least a half dozen things to put on them in different combinations. I can't do the math, but it comes to a big number, and he would do this every single Sunday. He would eat very, very slowly and relish every single morsel. He would sit there at the head of the table, eating and proclaiming, "Ah. This is how to live! Nothing else matters! What's wrong with people?! A bit of cream cheese and some dough! This is what's life's all about!"

Okay, Dad, you were right, but you never leaned over to cut up my bagel into little coins. You crowed! He'd look over at my plate and say, "Where's your bagel? Did you finish it already?" Yes, I had, for I ate it like the rest of my fellow New Yorkers, in two halves.

"Ah, you don't know how to relish life", he'd say. Then he's turn the bagel coin this way and that, like a jeweler examining a diamond. "Savor every morsel. You don't know when you're going to die. The storm troopers could be at our door at any moment."

My father had an uncanny ability to inject some Nazi reference at every opportunity.

So, here I was, my mother dashing in and out, making everything nice and just so, while my father carried on with his lesson. He positively gloated over his ability to eat a bagel properly. I felt small. I must admit sometimes I hated his guts for this show. I'd look at that sharp bagel knife sitting on the table and think I might want to kill him, if only to make him stop talking. I'd heard enough of storm troopers and stupid people who couldn't appreciate a bagel properly (including myself) to last me a lifetime by the age of ten.

Excuse me for the homicidal urge. It was only a fantasy, I swear it.

I know he was right. The possibilities for enjoying a simple bagel are stupendous! Every moment is worth savoring (but don't forget your neighbors probably hate your guts).

But I still eat my bagels the normal way. And sometimes I even eat them like a sandwich. And mostly, they come from Dunkin Donuts (and I've forgotten what a New York bagel tastes like, if such a thing still exists). So, shoot me. According to my father, you probably are planning to in the not so distant future anyway, so go ahead and get it over with.

Math note: I asked my partner, who has a degree in Science, about the bagel math. Easy stuff, he says! Let's say we have five different types of bagels and five different toppings. If we only put one topping on each different bagel the amount of different combinations is 25. If we increase the variables to two toppings per bagel (say, cream cheese and lox, which is likely) the number skyrockets to 100. No wonder my father took so long to eat brunch.


Abigail said...

#1. I love bialys and real Jewish bagels. I refuse to eat Dunkin Donuts bagels.
#2. Is it OK to say I kinda want to stab your father with a fork? Not to seriously injure him, just to teach him a lesson?
#3. Your mother had to keep herself preoccupied so that she wouldn't stab your father with a fork.
#4. I must admit to eating a bagel in a very similar fashion to your father. I love condiments in general, if something can be dipped, I love it. So having an assortment of cream cheese flavors creates the need for me to cut my bagel into at least that many pieces. My absolute favorite combo is pumpernickel with olive pimento cream cheese. NOW THAT IS LIVING THE GOOD LIFE!! :-)

Websafe said...

#1. This is a well written and interesting post. Pehaps the seed of a memoir?
#2. You meant rein yourself in (as in controlling a horse), not reign (as in ruling a country). (I notice these things -- so sue me!)
#3. Now that I have corrected you, I will probably be karmically compensated by an attack of my own misorthography.
#4. Recently I've been eating some very nice pumpernickel bagels for breakfast, sliced in half, briefly toasted, with the requisite 1-ounce serving of cheddar cheese on top (OK, so I'm a WASP). Delish!

Julie H. Rose said...

I won't sue you, but remember what happened the last time you corrected me? But thanks: I appreciate having an editor. I'll go fix that now. . .