Bagels GO BIG-TIME The name's the same but flavors vary

June 20, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

"Ummm, this is different." Tom Bagel sinks his teeth into his namesake, one with cinnamon and raisins. He chews thoughtfully, swallows and pronounces: "Light, not heavy on your chest. Easy on your palate."

"Wonderfully flavorful," says his wife, Marilyn.

And with two thumbs up for Greg's Bagels in Belvedere Square, the Great Bagel Tour of Baltimore is under way. Along the way there will be four stops, at four quite different shops selling bagels, and there will be plenty of bagel lore in between.

Tom and Marilyn Bagel of Bethesda know a thing or two about the hearty treat that happens to have the same name; they have been eating bagels, baking bagels, seeking out bagels, writing about bagels and talking about bagels for years, especially since the publication of their book, "The Bagel Bible," last year (the Globe Pequod Press, $9.95).

They even courted with bagels. "When we were dating he used to bring me a dozen bagels," says Marilyn.

"Hot out of the oven," says Tom.

The Bagels are not bagel purists. They do not regret the demise of the fiercely protective Bagel Bakers Union No. 338, whose members were born into its ranks, and whose secrets were never shared outside them. The union controlled bagel baking in the United States from just after the turn of the century until the 1960s. Then the invention of the bagel-making machine by Dan Thompson, a Canadian whose company headquarters is now in Los Angeles, brought bagels into the world of mass production.

In fact, the Bagels welcome the recent burst of bagel popularity beyond the ethnic community that nurtured them. "Now bagels are no more ethnic than pizza or tacos," Tom says. "Stand in any bagel shop and look at the demographics. It's a mini-United Nations."

Bagels are everywhere, from fast-food menus to grocery frozen-food cases. They even made the front page of the New York Times this past April. The Times story reported bagel consumption in the United States as having grown to 5 million in 1992, from just half a million 30 years earlier.

"Bagels are an overnight success that took 300 years," Marilyn says. "I think it's the beginning of an international bagel explosion. People who are used to hearty breads are going to gravitate to bagels."

Greg Novik, owner (and baker) of Greg's, likens the growth in bagel outlets to the "coffee-shop explosion" that started in Seattle "and a decade and a half later got to Baltimore." He notes that there used to be popcorn stores and frozen yogurt stores everywhere; in recent years they have been closing as fast as they opened. He predicts a similar shake-out in the bagel business. But the prospect of growing competition doesn't faze him. "It's OK," he says, with a laugh. "It's good that people are eating grain."

Rolled, boiled and baked

Greg's bagels are somewhat less dense than traditional bagels. But Mr. Novik points out, "We make them in the traditional way." The bagels are hand-rolled and boiled, or "kettled," before they are baked. "What I'm for is to make them the way they ought to be made, but maybe use some ingredients they didn't think of in the old days . . . to create within the tradition."

With a different special every day, Greg's might have 10 or 11 different varieties on hand. Some of the more unusual flavors have been Vidalia onion and hazelnut cashew. "I'll try anything," he says.

Mr. Novik used to be an advertising executive, and he keeps up a steady stream of banter with his customers. It gives the busy black-and-white-decor shop, with its many regulars, a big-city atmosphere.

It doesn't surprise him that bagels are becoming more popular. "It's obvious: It's a low-fat or no-fat product, it's filling, it's tasty, it looks like a doughnut, so you can almost convince yourself you're eating something that's horribly unhealthy . . . It's a nice-sized item that's self-contained."

With about 1 gram of fat, under 200 calories, no cholesterol and plenty of protein and complex carbohydrates, "bagels are the darlings of the nutrition industry," Marilyn Bagel says.

Growth in the bagel business is a physical reality at Sam's Bagels & More, 500 W. Coldspring Lane. Owners Carol and Ann Gallant plan to expand the shop into space next door, adding a bit more seating and lots more storage space. But they plan to keep the fairly intimate setting, which has become a favorite stop for Roland Park neighbors.

"They're baking onion, I can smell it," says Tom, sniffing the air at Sam's, but his sample choice is a jalapeno bagel. He notes with approval the availability of pumpernickel, rye and salt varieties: "Not everybody makes them."

Of course, "to a bagel purist, only plain or sesame are allowed," Marilyn says. "Anything else is heresy."

"Cinnamon raisin is the second most popular flavor," Tom says. "After plain."

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