I've got a lot of feelings about bagels. They came home in paper bags on my mother's commute home from New York City: glossy pumpernickel, onion, poppy. When she moved to the city, we got them hot at Tal Bagels, the shop around the corner. In college she sent them to me FedEx in California because while I was seldom homesick, I was stricken at the big, spongy English muffins with holes that passed for bagels out west.
Well-meaning friends took me to a baker's dozen of places that promised an old-school bagel. But what I missed seemed unattainable: the chewy, shiny, lightly pebbled crust with just a little crispness, the sound of it in your teeth and the soft give of the interior. Only trips back home kept me from thinking I'd imagined it. Everyone there said it was the water — that you couldn't replicate a New York bagel elsewhere. The New York Times published a disheartening story that concluded it was the lure of invention and disinterest in apprenticeship that kept California bakers from getting it right.
It's not snobbery. Eat a slick, watery Florida avocado and tell me if it's the same creamy miracle we take for granted in California. My disappointments turned me into a bitter bagel purist. When I see blueberry bagels, I recoil. Like the day-glow skin of poisonous frogs, non-traditional flavors served as a warning: These will only hurt you.
Let's talk about the multicultural elephant in the room. Los Bagels is its own creature, a distinctly Humboldt institution/cult with a mission of inclusion and community that I respect. You can't fight organic flour, philanthropy or the local devotion to slugs with lox and Larrupin sauce. It's just not my bagel. And how do we only have one bagel shop? What do people argue about on weekends?
A week ago I scanned the Facebook photos from Frankie's New York Bagels operating out of a commercial kitchen at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds. Beet bagels, bright as Amazonian frogs. Shit. But hope is a stubborn thing.
Tucked behind the Turf Club in a 10-by-20-foot kitchen reminiscent of the New York real estate market, Frankie Ambrosini shuttles a tray of bagels to the stove for boiling. The 34-year-old transplant from Rochester, New York, wears a black Frankie's ball cap over her cropped hair; tattoos of birds and leaves swirl up her arms. One by one, she drops the thick loops of dough into a stockpot and hits the timer. A minute later she's pulling them back out to sprinkle with toasted onion flakes.
Her recipe took about two years of experimentation at home, at first with no other mission than to make the bagels she longed for since coming to Humboldt eight years ago. That and killing some insomnia-induced free time. "I look back at the pictures and it's funny because they're really bad," says Ambrosini with a wrinkle of her nose. She uses traditional malt and Collett's Humboldt Honey in a process that takes about 15 hours from sponge to slicing. Developing a hand for forming the rings took time (who knew?) but the crust was the toughest part to nail. It was only after she had it down that she considered going pro.
She offers me a jalapeño cheese bagel and it's possible I flinch visibly. So I come clean about my reservations. Ambrosini shrugs. "We're in California, so we can play around and experiment. I don't know if people in New York would appreciate it." But the non-traditional flavors (blackberry Nutella, black lava salt, those beet bagels and — sweet mother of cream cheese — s'mores) sell out fast. "A lot of people come in and are really irritated by my experimental bagels and I get it. But that's what people want. And I'm always going to have the classics." Fair enough. She and her team — just herself, her wife Felicia and Mia Acosta today — crank out 40 or so batches a day, including varieties like everything (with the ingredients added separately to keep the flavors from blurring and the salt from breaking down) and egg, which, along with dusty bialys, are a blast from the past. And she's working on pumpernickel. "Gimme time," she says.
That seems to be enough for the East Coast crowd that comes by on weekends during retail hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The rest of the week you can get them at Kneeland Glen Farm Stand, Northtown Coffee and the Beachcomber, and Siren's Song Tavern and Humboldt Cider Company Taproom are serving up bar food offerings like bagel dogs (with dogs from Ambrosini's hometown, no less) and bites with cheese sauce.
When the everything bagels are finally cool enough to handle, she slices one and gives it a schmear of plain cream cheese for me. It's glorious. It is, at long last, the soft, chewy and delicately crusty bagel of home. Everybody shut up — I am having a moment here.
Ambrosini pulls a tray of bagels out of the oven and rotates them; it's not a traditional recipe thing, just something she has to do until she gets a better oven. "That's hot, sweetie," she warns as Felicia squeezes by for another tray. As much as Frankie Ambrosini loves the space, it's a little tight. She's already dreaming of a "bagel garden" serving mimosas. And dream she does. "Ever since I started this business," she says, "when I sleep, I sleep."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the North Coast Journal. Reach her at 442-1400 extension 320 or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.