Satire | Pittsburgh, do better with bagels

By Paige Wasserman, Staff Columnist

I am many things. I’m a writer, an actor, a singer, a daughter, a sister and a friend. But before I’m all of those things, I’m a CARB GIRL. Specifically, I’m a bagel girl. Everybody loves bagels. But to me, they are more than just bagels. As an East Coast Jew, they are a centerpiece of my culture.

Bagels immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century along with my Polish-Jewish ancestors. Stacked on a stick, Jewish immigrants would sell them in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Some New York Jews, upon securing a comfortable middle class lifestyle, relocated to the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey and opened bagel shops of equal quality, bringing deliciousness to Jews and non-Jews alike.

Jews continued to spread out across North America. Some traveled to Montreal, where they created a sweeter offshoot of the original New York bagel. Pittsburgh also collected a sizable close-knit Jewish community in Squirrel Hill and other neighborhoods. Squirrel Hill is now home to about 13,000 Jewish people, making them more than half of the neighborhood’s population.

That being said, Squirrel-Hillers did not bring the perfection of the NYC metro area bagel with them. And as a New Jersey suburbanite-turned-Yinzer, finding a perfect bagel in Pittsburgh has become the bane of my Jewish existence.

What makes a perfect bagel? To me, the perfect bagel has a chewy, luscious crust decorated with crispy bubbles. If you tear a great bagel apart, its interior should have steaming, carby ribbons, almost resembling pulled pork. When you squish the bagel, It should crackle and pop right back up. The rise should also be significant — preferably, but not necessarily, the rise should be so great that the hole in the bagel reduces to nothing, almost with the appearance of an innie belly button.

As a student of the bagel, I’ve tried to reduce confounds by purchasing the same type of bagel each time — an everything bagel with butter. You may be wondering, why not cream cheese? I don’t like cream cheese all that much. Plus, in my opinion, butter is less overwhelming and allows me to judge the integrity of the bagel. I never toast it because, again, it compromises the bagel’s true form. This past week, in preparation for this column, I ventured out to multiple establishments to refresh my memories of Pittsburgh bagels.

Here they are:

  1. Einstein’s

Einstein’s is technically not a Pittsburgh bagel. It’s a chain, but makes multiple appearances on Pitt’s campus between Swanson and Posvar. These bagels are bad. There is no rise, and the inside is crumbly and sad. At least they’re consistent. I will only eat Einstein’s if I am truly at rock bottom, life-wise.

  1. Bruegger’s

Bruegger’s, Pittsburgh’s other bagel chain, makes some lofty claims. Their logo’s subtitle reads “AUTHENTIC NEW YORK STYLE,” which, right off the bat, no. Just no. First of all, the size of the bagel was downright depressing — by New York/New Jersey standards, it was a mini bagel. I wasn’t angry at the crust, as it had the bubbles of my desired bagel. But the inside just didn’t hold up. These bagels were not in their prime, as evidenced by the simultaneous crumbliness and doughiness of the interior.

  1. Pigeon Bagels

I had high hopes for Pigeon Bagels. It is across the street from a Yeshiva, so I thought, “this should be good.” Plus I’d collected rave reviews from locals. I should have considered the standards of said locals. Now, don’t get me wrong, Pigeon was not offensively bad. But up to my standards? Not quite.

The crust was bubbly, but it was bumpy, a feature I had never detected in my New Jersey/New York bagels. The rise was simply not enough for me, either. The bagel seemed to be begging for more proofing time. And somehow, it was just over-baked on the exterior and just underbaked in the interior. It also didn’t have my desired carby ribbons — the bagel crumbled in my mouth. This is a Kosher-certified bagel in the heart of a Jewish community, so needless to say, I’m disappointed.

  1. Acorn

When the pandemic began, Acorn, an upscale eatery in the heart of Shadyside, began selling bagels through mobile order. My family, trapped in our new home in Pittsburgh, had high hopes, as we had been to Acorn pre-pandemic and enjoyed their brunch. First of all, $28 for a dozen bagels!? That’s crazy.

This gentrified waste of calories looked like my face pre-Accutane. It had a lumpy, almost porridge-like texture I had never seen in a bagel. When I bit in, it was raw. Maybe it was a bad batch. But this bagel was so bad, I wept tears of sadness and rage. This bagel took advantage of the Yinzers’ naivety and charged them $28 for a dozen bagels.

  1. Lola’s Eatery

Lola’s Eatery is on thin ice. They are still mobile order only, which, this late in the pandemic feels a little arrogant of them. Without my consent, Ms. Lola toasted my bagel. Lola, what are you hiding? Not to mention, the butter was melted into the bagel, which was not per the assignment. This was yet another mini bagel with a dissatisfactory rise. The everything seasoning fell off the bagel and made a home in the passenger seat of my boyfriend’s Honda. The flavor was loudly, singularly garlic. This was not a bagel. This was a piece of garlic bread. I will not be returning.

  1. Gussy’s Bagels

I had Gussy’s Bagels on the set of a student film in which I am acting. Enriching to my scientific method, I also had access to multiple bagels, as we ordered a batch. My friend also opted for an everything bagel. Assumedly, these bagels would be from the same batch, right? Apparently not, as mine was burnt and hers was underdone.

The rise, just like in the rest of these bagels, was insufficient. Somehow, my bagel had too much everything seasoning. The sesame seeds also had this weird aftertaste. The ribboned interior of my dream bagel failed to make an appearance. Instead, I received a crumbly mess. These bagels are a fair price at $18 a dozen. Still, they miss the mark.

Surely, there are bagel shops I did not patronize. But after having so many depressing experiences, I’m tapping out. I can’t stand to experience any more disappointment.

How do I fill the bagel-shaped hole in my heart? Since moving to Pittsburgh, every time I’ve visited New Jersey, I’ve purchased two dozen bagels and taken them on the plane. TSA consistently pulls me aside — “Is this a bomb?” they wonder. No, it is a bagel. When I get home, I stuff my freezer with my bounty, and every morning for the next month, I microwave one half of a bagel.

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be in Pittsburgh. I’ll probably move back to the NYC area after graduation. But until then, I’ll just have to import my desired bagel. Pittsburgh, get your carbs together.

Paige Wasserman (she/her) writes about the arts, pop culture, campus culture and things that make her want to scream. You can reach her at [email protected].