How the Bagel Business Supports the American Dream

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Traversing the city of Allentown, a pedestrian with even moderate skills of observation will note that myriad businesses advertise themselves as ‘New York Style’; pizza parlors, barbershops, boutiques, dry cleaners. One of the men bringing New York style to Allentown is Amel Para, longtime associate of the New York Style Bagels. By the hard work and long hours of Amel and his co-founder Said Ali, New York Style Bagel expanded its business from its original location on Lehigh Street to include a stall at the Allentown Farmers Market. The stall is decorated with whimsical style. Rainbow strands of holiday lights and petrified miniature bagels hang from the ceiling of the fuchsia and yellow painted stall. Upon entering, I felt that I had been invited to a bagel party. Amel’s customer service has an appeal similar to the establishment. It is not a traditional ‘how do you ma’am’ of fussy, white-walled establishments, but a more low-key and genuine charm characterizes his approach to customers and bagel-making.

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Beneath a clearly well-loved baseball cap, he wears a neat, collared shirt and when he comes from behind the counter to shake your hand in greeting, you’ll see that he is sporting track pants to complete the ensemble. He dresses to complement the needs of the day and the many roles that he will play. With familiar acquaintances and regular customers he displays the easy-going demeanor of the baseball cap, freely making jokes and discussing everything from local sports to global politics. With new customers, he is the solicitous host in a smart shirt talking up new products and making recommendations, offering personal experiences and free samples along the way. Throughout all these interactions, he is on the move- having already helped make and deliver the day’s bagels by 8 am, he continues to rotate stock, clean, organize, and entertain.

            On the Thursday morning that Amel and I spoke, I went to the Allentown Farmers Market to get a watch fixed at the antique watch and clock stall. The watchsmith came into work later than I realized, so I went to New York Style Bagel for a coffee and an apple cinnamon bagel with walnut raisin cream cheese, a seasonal favorite of mine, to while away the hour wait. The bagel experience is a great way to spend an hour. First, there is the excitement of actually choosing your bagel flavor. Pacing in front of the case containing over a dozen different varieties, I weighed the merits of sweet mango, savory sundried tomato, health-conscious energy, and decadent chocolate chip. Then there is cream cheese to consider- go the traditional route, or spice it up with strawberry or salmon?

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Giddy with anticipation of my selection, I sat on a stool at the counter to await toasting. The tantalizing scent of warming bread and apples wafted over to me, and I did my best to make drooling and huffing air look casual. Amel brought me the bagel liberally schmeared with walnut raisin cream cheese, and I forced myself to admire it with my eyes for a moment before devouring it. The first bite, when I gingerly brought the bagel to my mouth and attempted to not get cream cheese on my nose, had me doing a little dance on my stool. Such pure enthusiasm for this perfectly balanced breakfast food, the crisp warm bagel and cool smooth cream cheese, cannot and should not be contained.  As I sipped my coffee and doodled love notes to the old Poles that invented bagels, Amel and I struck up conversation about how slow Thursday mornings are compared to Fridays. It was crowded and difficult to navigate the aisles in the market, bustling as they were with active seniors and moms tugging toddlers, but Amel and I had the bagel stall to ourselves. As Amel told me about he came to be a bagelsmith, I realized that there was much more to this delicious business than I had realized. I’ve had many breakfasts at that narrow counter, glad for the fresh baked goods and self-serve coffee and happy to be supporting a locally-owned business. Still, it turned out that there was an element here that I had taken for granted.

Amel came to the United States from Egypt in 1998, leaving behind family and friends and a successful career as a computer teacher. He came to America with a freshly printed visa and a list of 5 names and phone numbers belonging to people he had never met. After three years working cashier jobs in gas stations and convenience stores, Amel entered into the bagel business with a close friend from church, Said. With hard work and the help of friends and friends of friends, Amel now has a home and family here in the United States and a job to which he is dedicated.

        His dedication could be measured by how many mornings he has woken up to freezing temperatures, gone to work making bagels by 5 am, and then gone out in treacherous conditions to deliver bagels around a Lehigh Valley blanketed in snow or ice. Especially for a guy who never saw snow until arriving in the United States, this shows gumption, and he assures me that over the twelve years he has worked with bagels there have been plenty of mornings like this.

The bagel dough is generally prepared the night before it is needed and put in the freezer. In the morning, it is put in the refrigerator to thaw for an hour and then hand rolled into logs which are joined into spheres. These spheres are dropped into boiling water to get firm. “This is where you have to be really careful,” Amel cautions, “because if they touch they will stick together, and then you’ll ruin two bagels at once!” The dough is then baked, creating the firm yet tender rind around the fluffy baked middle which characterizes, as Amel informed me, a ‘New York style’ bagel. It is difficult work to hand roll and form as many bagels as they sell in a day, but Amel would not have it any other way. “When we bought our kitchen there was a bagel machine there already. It is still there but we never use it, because then our bagels would be like all the others.”

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He pulls out a salt bagel and points at a flattened, rough patch on the outside. “This is how you know it is handmade, this is the place where the two sides of the dough log were joined. Machine bagels are plopped out (he drops his hand while spreading fingers to illustrate, a gesture which calls to mind the ‘plopping out’ of factory farms in ‘The Meatrix’) and come out perfectly round. He goes on to point out other imperfections, like a crease in the inner ring next to a plumped up bit of the bagel, explaining that if one side of the dough hits the water first, it will expand more quickly. “We try not to do that, but when it happens, it is Ok because it still tastes good. It just happens when you do things by hand.”

Maybe it is Amel’s easy-going temperament that allows for him to not only shrug off imperfection but to celebrate it, to flaunt it as an indication of his participation in the process. Or maybe it is something that he has learned. When I asked why Amel decided to come to the United States, to leave everyone that he knew and a successful career as a computer teacher, he simply said “For freedom.”  At that time, he said in an uncharacteristically somber tone, “Egypt was not like it is now. In Egypt, you could not act or think. You could not even dream.” Amel recognizes that America is not perfect- he told stories of the poor neighborhoods he lived in when he arrived, about the prejudice and ignorance of some individuals. But he still believes in the good here. As imperfect a society as America’s freedom has produced, he knows from experience that the lumps and creases are indicators of dreams able to be dreamed.

Amel’s dedication to handmade quality is rivaled by his interest in pioneering new bagel flavor. He boasts of being the most creative baker on the team, coaxing his partners to mix unusual fruits such as jalapenos or mangos into bagels or cream cheese. He justifies this aesthetic exploration with practical business sense, observing that “if you make more flavors, more new people will come try, and then maybe they come back again.” Amel’s heart is here, considering the tastes of his customers. Lately he has been spending more time in the kitchen than behind the counter as a dependable lead baker “because if you don’t have a good product, you don’t have a business,” and Amel makes good product. One woman warned me that “you got to come early because if you come late all the good stuff is gone.” Throughout my morning at New York Style Bagel, I watched trios of jalapeño cheddar, cinnamon raisin, mango, and basil asiago bagels jump into bags to become a dozen and then get whisked away by enthusiastic consumers. I knew that by noon most of the exotic bagels would have gone to loving, albeit temporary homes. I was glad to see them go, because this is how these bagels are meant to be eaten- promptly, gladly, with enthusiasm and relish (the gusto kind, not the pickle kind, although they both might work on the marble rye).

I asked Amel about frozen bagels, and he said “Oh sure, the way you freeze a bagel is you cut it in half, wrap each half separate, and put it in the freezer. Then, you take it out and let it thaw for one hour before you toast it. Most people, they don’t wait, they just throw it right in the toaster and it gets all dry and crumbly. You got to let it thaw.” I said, “Gee Amel, that is both useful practical advice and a great comment on how Americans interact with their food, but I was actually wondering if you could explain why people should buy your bagels rather than the frozen ones from the grocery store.” He brushed frozen grocery store bagels away with a swish of his hand, “Fresh bagels are always fresh. Frozen bagels never really thaw.”

Maybe this is true of food in general. Maybe fresh food will always carry the flavor of the maker, and carry on that maker’s dream. Maybe the frozen food doesn’t ever really thaw- the produce that has never experienced a pest or fungus, the animal that does not have a life story but only a protracted death, the farmer that does not make a living but only a paycheck; maybe this emotionally frozen food does not nourish a body in the same way as fresh food.

Amel’s bagels travel around the Lehigh Valley every morning, fresh from the oven. Baked only hours prior to purchase, or in my case eager ingestion, they reach the consumer directly- no forgotten time in freezers, no wasted youth on trans-national highways. These bagels come from Amel’s hands, by his truck, to you. As much as it is hard work, it is also very simple. Amel’s stall does not sport any slogans or trendy allegiances. His bagels do not call themselves ‘local’ or ‘handmade’ or ‘artisan,’ even though they are. He is not advertising his bagels to niche consumers that he thinks will shell out for that bandwagon lingo. While American bagel culture indicates that Americans would rather consume conveniently frozen and crumbly goods than do the hard work that Amel does, Amel seems to consider this work a grand opportunity. He is not bitter about the end of his teaching career leading him here and he intentionally chooses to do hard work with his hands.  The way that Amel works is not a marketing choice nor is it his singular option nor is it necessarily all about the bagels.  These baked goods are more than a paycheck or novelty item, and they encompass a passion larger than themselves. I had taken the availability of these fresh handmade goods for granted, but I have come to understand that it has been no simple task for these bagels to reach my community. These bagels were born into a repressive North African nation; they have made difficult choices and experienced hardship and loneliness.  After this long journey, these bagels are now kneaded and baked every morning with intense personal gratitude to the friend and nation that allowed Amel to take part in the freedom of the American dream.

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