Boichik’s Bagels turns customers into true believers
While waiting in a Sunday line at Boichik Bagels, a bumblebee floated from one pink blossom to the next on the branches above my head. In front of me, a woman named Annie impatiently stepped out of line to look round the corner at the other customers, who stood still as statues. After advancing a couple of times, she settled back in place and we all drifted forward to order. I’d read about the bagels, the lines and Boichik’s origin story for more than a year. It felt as if my first visit, on a sunny, nearly-spring morning, was long overdue.
By chance, the founder and owner of the business, Emily Winston, walked right past me to mail a letter. I recognized her from previous Boichik articles and asked for an impromptu interview. Winston cheerfully agreed, and the conversation began with her thoughts about what does and doesn’t qualify as a bagel. “A bad bagel is often a round piece of bread with a hole in it,” she said. “It’s made as if it were a roll.” To achieve a traditional New York water bagel, Boichik’s specialty, the bagel undergoes a cold-fermentation process overnight. It develops a “skin” before: a) boiling in a pot and b) baking on an oven stone.
“The stone really gives it that bottom crust,” Winston said. This process is labor-intensive and abandoned by many would-be “bagel” makers. I could taste the difference and am now a Boichik convert. On many occasions, I’ve ordered a bagel that’s all dolled up and ready for me to eat. But work is a regular intruder into the sacred space of breakfasting. An hour or so after picking up my order, ordinary bagels turn soggy or become as hard and flavorless as softballs.
Keeping that anxiously in mind, I postponed eating my Boichik order in favor of the interview. Later, when I bit into my “everything” bagel—with cream cheese, tomatoes and tart, pickled red onions—it was still crispy. And, best of all, the bagel itself was laced with subtle-yet-detectable layers of salt and spice. A person could eat one as-is, without all the fixings, or simply slathered in butter, and call it a day.
It’s well-documented that Winston modelled her bagels after the ones made at the now-defunct New York business H&H Bagels. Born on the East Coast in New Jersey, Winston was distraught when she found out H&H had closed. Instead of crying over spilt milk, she set out to recreate H&H Bagels in her home kitchen. Winston thought, “I’ll try to rescue my beloved bagel from the abyss.” What started out as a hobby became the spark for her own company.
After five years of experimentation with ingredients and technique, Winston felt her recipe registered in her memory as an H&H bagel. “I have this thing with food memories,” she said. “There’s a bullseye, an archery target.” If you can hit someplace within that circle, you can taste that you’ve hit the right spot. “And if it doesn’t,” Winston said, “you don’t have that Proustian madeleine experience.”
For Winston, that sense of nostalgia takes her right back to childhood. “My dad, every Sunday morning, he would go out and pick up bagels and bring them home,” she said. That default Sunday activity in their home is a standard way of life for many East Coasters. Before she started Boichik Bagels, Winston felt that custom was missing here in the Bay Area. “I stopped eating bagels out here because none of them were the ones I wanted to eat,” she said.
Bagels, Winston added, are also linked to life-cycle events in Judaism such as bar and bat mitzvahs. “I’m not just selling food,” she said. “I’m selling memories and cultural connection.” Many of her customers are grateful ex-East Coasters who recall, from their own childhoods, eating bagels like the ones she makes. Winston takes pride in the fact that Boichik bagels are a part of their family traditions. “Now they’re feeding bagels to their children, which they thought were gone forever.”
Boichik Bagels, open Wednesday–Sunday 7:30am until 1pm or sold out, 3170 College Ave., Berkeley. 510.858.5189. boichikbagels.com.