It was a good Saturday when my father would leave the apartment early, before any of us had finished showering and dressing, to pick up bagels for breakfast. Once he walked through the heavy door, my favorite task was unpacking the large paper bag he brought back. I’d unload each item, one by one: the different flavors of bagels, clear plastic containers of cream cheese and pickled herring in wine sauce, and, lastly, two folded pieces of wax paper, one wrapped around sturgeon and the other containing thinly sliced lox, more delicate and rich than a croissant.
There are many things that make my New York City childhood unique, but these breakfasts were something special. Bagels and lox can be found outside New York, but I was eating the pinnacle of the form—bagels from H&H and lox from Murray’s Sturgeon Shop.
I moved to Boston after college and my special bagel mornings were replaced with whatever the local coffee shop had sitting behind glass. The bagels I attempted to eat tasted like dough baked in a ball that someone half-heartedly poked a hole through the middle. I gave up trying to recreate my childhood breakfasts.
After ending my first, long-term relationship and running full speed into the depressing dating scene of my twenties, I found a new love: Coffee, preferably Colombian, with a shit-ton of cream and sugar. If I had that and a sunny bench to sit on, I couldn’t care less about my failed JDate meet-up that ended with me following the guy around the supermarket until I realized, around the cereal aisle, that he was trying to get rid of me.
At 29, I responded to a Match.com message from a man who looked dorky but not socially awkward. His emails were funny and warm and he didn’t claim to “work hard, play hard.” I told him we should meet at my favorite coffee shop. I arrived before he did, so I got on line (a true New Yorker never says “in” line) to purchase my comfort and protection—a medium Colombian with extra cream. As I waited, I turned to check the front door and saw my date walk in, the sun creating a halo around his head. I half-expected to hear angels singing. Instead we awkwardly shook hands.
After getting our coffees we headed to City Hall lawn and I learned that he was just out of a long-term relationship, from the suburbs of Chicago, and the owner of four coffee shops and a bagel bakery. The angels began to shriek. But I played it cool. I even played it cool when he drove me back to my place in his bagel van, the smells making me dizzy with nostalgia.
“I know good bagels,” I told him before my first visit to his café. He rolled his eyes, familiar and possibly a bit threatened by my New York-bagel mentality. But he won my approval, and later, he won my father’s approval with a bag of freshly-baked bagels that rode down to New York with us.
When my future new boyfriend was 24, after managing the bagel bakery for two years, the owner announced that he was ready to pull the plug. Seeing potential for the shop with the right changes, he decided to bury himself in loans and buy it. From there he continued to grow, buying out a small chain of coffee shops a few years later.
The first time I watched him working in the small bagel shop’s kitchen, wearing a white chef’s shirt over his long-sleeve button-down and a few swipes of flour across his forehead, he looked a bit frazzled but proud. Employees swirled around us as he introduced me to the whirring dough mixer and the walk-in refrigerator where the bagels proofed for two days. At the end of my tour he walked me over to the display baskets full of bagels and asked me if I wanted to take some home. I left with a full paper bag clutched to my chest.
During our courtship, he built a new store and remodeled two. There was an ebb and flow to the time we spent together as his business threatened to drown him and then finally receded back to a bearable level of work. Within the first few months of dating I offered to help in anyway that I could—that evening I found myself painting the basement floor of his newly built store. He snapped a picture of me painting a corner of the room on my hands and knees. “I can’t believe you agreed to do this,” He shook his head and laughed at his own gall for asking this favor of me.
I didn’t mind. I was inspired by his endeavor and felt electricity run through me as I got involved—even if it meant crouching in a brightly lit basement for two hours.
After three years of dating, gallons of Counter Culture coffee, and enough free bagels to make a person with celiac disease quiver in fear, we got married and bought a home outside of Boston. Far away enough from the city to get some yard, yet close enough to manage the bagel empire.
It was a thrill to walk into one of his shops as the newly minted Mrs. Bagel, walk up to the counter and order whatever I wanted. I upgraded to lattes, licking the thick foam from the wooden stirrer feeling like the queen of caffeine in my coffee castle.
When I got pregnant, I Photoshopped a bagel floating in the ultrasound and we nicknamed her Little Latte. As my due date loomed, my husband frantically worked to open his sixth cafe. Our daughter arrived just a day before the grand opening. At six months she started teething on frozen bagels.
“Cheap labor,” my husband says when he brings her to work, his employees laughing and Little Latte sitting on his hip, entranced by the tubes of dough traveling down the conveyer belt. We like to imagine her bringing her friends in as a teenager, her eyes glowing with pride as she offers them free iced coffees and bagels.
Though we deal with the annoyances of middle-of-the-night bagel emergencies—broken oven, dough mixer, delivery van—it’s these doughy spheres that make me certain that I was meant to marry my husband. They are my palm-sized life rafts for when I feel disconnected from where I came from.
And when he returns from work, his clothes and skin perfumed with toasted bagels and freshly-ground coffee, he smells just like home.