About The Bagel Farm
Sometime in the last century, I visited a friend in Brooklyn. Hipsters were as yet but babes, suckled on bespoke organic human breastmilk. The last morning of my visit, my friend walked me to the subway, with a brief detour to a bagel shop, sustenance for my train journey home. One plain, one everything, schmear ‘em both, buddy. Never had bagels so good.
The Ideal Bagel was solidified in my mind. Fortunately (well, fortunately for the story), I had just seen a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, written by David Mamet, which about covers The Three Archetypes of Contemporary Masculinity – Knighted Brit, Tough Guy, Con Man. But… one Mametian line from the film did make an impression – ‘what one man can do, another can do.’ Sitting on the train, betorpored by bagel, I said to myself, ‘one man made those bagels, I can make them too.’ I know, awful movie, stupid story; but like a lot of stupid things in this world, it’s true.
Thus began a quest. I collected and tested every bagel recipe I could find, set a google alert, started a file, read stories about bagel makers, new techniques, a stack of paper about four inches thick. I realize, it’s a little crazy. Every four, five years the Holy Grail of Bageldom is found, again, someone cracked the Fibonacci Bagel Code, the dough world will never be the same, a gift to mankind, The Best Bagel Ever Made. The secret is… the water, honey, malt, malt powder, sourdough, instant yeast, fresh yeast, active dry yeast, pre-ferments, baking soda, fermentation, mix time, the flour, lye, shaping technique, tithing, prayer, animal sacrifice.
Katherine and I drove across country and back twice, bagel quest goes nationwide. Recently, I visited the same friend in Brooklyn, tried a lot of bagels. The variety of bagels in this country, made from the same ingredients, using mainly the same techniques, the same equipment, is a lesson in human striving. The secret is, there’s no secret – Americans prefer a pneumatic, bready, khaki colored dough ring, sometimes without a discernible hole in the middle. And that’s fine, go forth fellow citizens, enjoy your hole-challenged dough pile.
Here in Asheville, I started baking at our home, sold bagels to High Five Coffee. Small home kitchen, countertop stand mixer, limited refrigerator space, standard home oven, like any of you have – nothing special. A professional baker would laugh her ass off at my set-up, my methods. But every morning, Katherine would ask for a bagel. I loved the ritual, steady slice of the knife while rolling the bagel 360 degrees until the halves separated. Just the right amount of cream cheese, not too much dammit, not too much. Eat the seeded top half of an everything bagel first, what falls onto the plate as you eat can be dabbed up with the cream cheese atop the bottom half – the Min Method. She would get this look on her face after the first bite, and usually say something like, ‘Dayahm!’ You can have your Best Of lists, this was good enough for me, and still is.
Eventually, K’s health declined; under grim circumstance, I stopped baking. But the seed was planted.
In the end, Bagel Farmer bagels aren’t like those we tasted from coast to coast, in Brooklyn, or Seattle, or Lancaster, Pennsylvania, or Asheville North Carolina. They aren’t even what I was trying for, I was still bewitched by those Brooklyn bagels from the last century. They evolved, into the modestly sized, dark brown, crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, slightly nutty tasting ring with a hole in the middle that you can order on this website.
Before you go thinking, that Bagel Farmer, all up on his high horse-tractor with his ‘like nothing else in the WOOORLD’ nonsense, and look, I have no interest in controversy here, especially in the end times, but, honestly friends, there is no BEST BAGEL.
There are enough divisions among us, everyone knows it’s a gimmick, an advertising ploy, we can’t help ourselves. I get it, a harmless diversion from the many troubles of the world. But if you must, the BEST BAGEL is out there waiting for you – Literally! Dozens of them in fact, coast to coast; ask the internet, there are testimonials, pictures, five star reviews, award winning bakers, magazine articles, videos, driving directions; a plethora of TweetTubeFaceGrams selling you doughy perfection. If, however, you desire a local product, made with care, using quality ingredients, delivered fresh to your door for a reasonable price, the Bagel Farmer is here for you. Please, please, don’t Yelp me.
Without Katherine Min, the Bagel Farm doesn’t exist, it’s nothing but an emotional and spiritual superfund site, depleted of budget and general interest. She’s no longer here, but she’s here. The farm is just getting started, but even so, it feels a little like a promise fulfilled.
I once read a book about the Manhattan Project (no bagels mentioned, but stay with me here). Just before the historic test of the world’s first nuclear weapon, Enrico Fermi, who was instrumental to the enterprise, the ‘architect of the atomic bomb’, nervous that the explosion would ignite earth’s atmosphere, killing off most of the living creatures on the planet, pulled out his slide rule (!) (google it, be amazed), did a few calculations in his head, and satisfied himself that humanity was safe, for that day, anyway. The fate of the planet rested with one man, his large large brain, and two pieces of ruled wood, sliding against each other.
So Mamet is wrong wrong wrong – what one man can do, another man cannot, cannot do.
But maybe a woman can.
Thanks Min, miss you.
The Bagel Farmer
Katherine Min – photos, her life, her work – at katherinekmin.com
Donations to, and information about, the Katherine Min Fellowship at MacDowell Colony