“When you’re hung over and 18, it’s perfect,” Cox told me. “And having it now, it brings you back. That’s what a bagel does. It brings you back.”
Being a bagel merchant is not easy. It is, as Ann Limpert, food critic for The Washingtonian told me, the type of business where “you can taste a shortcut.” Craft matters. It requires early mornings and long hours. It depends on foot traffic, office orders and catering gigs. It demands that people drop their paralyzing panic around carbs and indulge in something fundamentally unhealthy.
But Cohen, Cox and others, made it work. And they did so, in part, by leaning on the notion that D.C.’s dark days in the bagel diaspora were finally ending.
“A lot of people in D.C. who grew up in the tri-state area knew it was a void here,” said Cox. “And they were rooting for us.”
When Covid hit, the district’s bagel shops got a surprising boost. People wanted grab-and-go dining rather than indoor seating. They craved simplicity and a comfort food that matched the lack of pretension that now defined their lives. D.C.’s food scene — long infused by the influences of its foreign immigrants and perpetually underrated — suffered from the pandemic overall. But, in a small way, it also became more complete. The breakfast void was filling.
“I grew up here in D.C. in the `90s and `80s and it was a depressing bagel landscape,” Limpert said. “Right now, it’s having a very unique moment.”
‘We Were Fighting the Battle With White Bread’
There may be no greater authority on the bagel and its place in the D.C. food landscape than Joan Nathan.
A longtime Washington-based food critic, she is to Jewish culinary writing what Robert Frost is to poetry, having written the definitive works on the cuisine. In her seminal book, Jewish Cooking in America, she charted the path of the bagel from ancient Egypt through the 13th century Jewish communities in eastern Europe, who eventually brought the craft to America. In the late 19th century, newly emigrated bakers hawked their goods on New York City’s Lower East Side, displaying a dozen or so on long wooden sticks. But for decades, there was limited desire for bagels beyond the city’s reach.
Things changed in the 1950s and `60s, Nathan noted. The 1951 production of a Broadway comedy, “Bagels and Yox,” helped popularize the bagel. That same year, Family Circle magazine included a recipe for them. And then, not long after, the Lenders, a bagel-making family from New Haven, Connecticut, adopted a few changes to distribution that, in their words, helped “bagelize America.” The first was to put the bagels into polyethylene bags to sell to supermarkets. The second was to adopt freezing technology. Longevity was achieved. A massive new consumer pool was suddenly reachable.
“We were fighting the battle with white bread, which in my day was synonymous with American taste,” Marvin Lender told me. “We were committed to getting out of just the Jewish and eastern Europe clientele.”