Bagels have become the new cereal. Everyone eats them -- and not only for breakfast. Schools serve bagels; they're offered on most cafeteria lines, and you can buy them in convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. Their appeal as a filling, low-fat food has catapulted them from the Lender's logs you see in the frozen food section to the whimsical sun-dried-tomato-and-basil variety at trendy cafes.
Yet, if you want a good bagel in this town, -- a traditional, chewy bagel with a hard crust, not a roll with a hole posing as a bagel -- pickings are slim. It takes a little effort to unearth the true gems.
Most people think of bagels as a New York food. In fact, they were first made in the late-17th century by a Jewish baker in Austria and became popular in Eastern Europe. Bagels came to America with Jewish immigrants 200 years later. Since many Jewish newcomers settled in New York, the bagel became associated with the city. And the large, dense, chewy bagels with a hard crust, the ones made by the immigrants, became the most widely known. Other cities developed their own styles. Boston bagels generally take the form of a smaller, breadier version.
Bagel places such as Kupel's Bagels in Brookline and Rosenfeld Bagel Co. in Newton, have their fans. So do Katz Bagel Bakery in Chelsea, Newman's Bakery in Swampscott, and Zeppy's Baigel Bakery in Randolph. Other bagel eaters are happy with the franchise products, such as Bruegger's, Einstein Bros., and Finagle A Bagel.
Among the independent shops are Iggy's Breads of the World in Cambridge, bagels by US in Arlington, and Aesops Bagels, which used to be in Lexington and now bakes its goods in a factory in Chelsea for distribution to shops in this and other cities.
''Bagels are so personal to people," says Pedja Kostic, production manager at Iggy's Breads. Shying away from pigeonholing the bagels his Cambridge bakery makes, Kostic does reveal that he spent time in many Montreal bagel shops. The prized Montreal bagels are baked on stone in wood-fired ovens, which gives them a crispier, crunchier crust and slightly smoky taste. Another important difference is that their toppings -- poppy seeds, sesame seeds, etc. -- are on the bottom as well, which makes splitting one with a friend much more equitable.
''We played with many recipes," says Kostic. The result is a dense yet textured bagel that is not as chewy as the real Montreal or New York varieties, but has a crispy crust and a generous amount of toppings on both sides. Most of these toppings, as well as many ingredients used by Iggy's, are organic, and this character comes through in the taste.
Prices at Iggy's are reasonable, with bagels selling for 50 cents each at the factory store. Its bagels and other products are at many markets and restaurants. The trick with any bagel, however, as Kostic and others will tell you, is to eat them when they're fresh. Even a few hours makes a difference. If they are a day old, they should be toasted to bring back some flavor and texture. Bagels can be frozen (slice them first). Then pop them straight from the freezer into the toaster. If you visit Iggy's store -- its location is somewhat hidden near Fresh Pond -- just getting a bag of fresh bagels home unfinished will be a challenge.
If it's real New York bagels you're looking for, an Arlington shop might have something for you. Rich Kourie, one of the owners of bagels by US, says his New York bagels (89 cents each) will make your ''head spin like in 'The Exorcist.' " While some bagel makers spend time in the trenches, learning their trade from a traditional New York Jewish baker, Kourie cut to the chase. He has bagels shipped to his Arlington bakery three times a week from New York's H&H Bagels, ''one of the largest bagel manufacturers in the world," according to the store's website. They're boiled, par-baked, and flash-frozen in New York, then fully baked in Kourie's ovens. The result is a soft, flavorful bagel perfect with a schmear of one of Kourie's flavored cream cheeses.
Many of Kourie's customers say that Kourie saves them a trip to New York. The folks from the Harvard Law Review did a blind taste test of area bagels in 1997; they chose bagels by US as the best and have had the bagels delivered daily to their offices ever since. Many other customers call ahead, and Kourie bakes to order. Bagel and egg sandwiches are also a popular item, as are bagels sandwiched with whitefish, and even ham and cheese ($4.95).
Local bagel fans were dismayed by the closing of Lexington's Aesops Bagels a little over a year ago, but the owner was actually reorganizing because demand outstripped the shop's capacity. Now these tasty, crunchy, and chewy rounds are made in a Chelsea plant. The bagel company was bought in 2002 by J.S.B. Industries, says Jim Taber, director of bagel operations. The company is now focused on distributing the 24 varieties more widely.
Aesops bagels (about 95 cents apiece) have a crisp crust with a delicate sweetness and an assertive grain flavor. They are sold at coffee shops, in school cafeterias, and markets.
So, good bagels are around. You just have to seek them out.
Iggy's Bread of the World is at 130 Fawcett St., Cambridge, 617-491-7600. Iggy's bagels are at many Whole Foods Markets; Oxford Spa, 102 Oxford St., Cambridge, 617-661-6988; Blue Shirt Cafe, 424 Highland Ave. (Davis Square), Somerville, 617-629-7641; Pemberton Farms, 2225 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-876-2711. Bagels by US is at 789 Massachusetts Ave., Arlington, 781-646-2662. Aesops bagels are at Boston University George Sherman Student Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave., Boston; 1369 Coffee House, 1369 Cambridge St., (Inman Square), Cambridge, 617-576-1369; and 757 Massachusetts Ave. (Central Square), Cambridge; 617-576-4600.