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HEALTH SONG | SO SoCal

Brooklyn Rising

September 29, 1996|Danny Feingold

Drive down Beverly Boulevard just west of Alvarado Street, and you'll notice what first seems like a mirage. Rising nearly 20 feet is a thin vertical sign with the word "bagels' in red. Below that is a smaller sign, also in red, that reads "open to the public.' This is not how bagels are sold in Los Angeles in 1996, not in the era of jalapeno bagels smothered with pesto cream cheese and served alongside decaf latte. Yet there it is, a large, nondescript building in the shadow of downtown announcing itself as the Brooklyn Bagel Bakery.

The interior is bare-bones, from the wood and glass walk-up counter to co-owner Richard Friedman's disheveled office. Most of the bakery's space is given over to machinery and storage, reflecting Brooklyn's 85-15 split between wholesale and retail. (The bulk of its business is supplying delicatessens and bakeries.) Lining the walls are photos of Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Gil Hodges and other gods from the Brooklyn Dodgers' pantheon; near the entrance hangs a Depression-era portrait that features sober-looking leaders of New York's Bagel Bakers Union, which Richard's grandfather helped establish in 1927.

Richard's father, 79-year-old Seymour Friedman, founded the company in 1953 and ran it for 35 years before turning over day-to-day operations to his son. White-haired but still vigorous, Friedman sprinkles his sentences with Yiddish asides and speaks with almost biblical fervor about what constitutes a real bagel. Holding court on a recent Saturday afternoon before an audience of three generations of Friedmans, he explains why many of Brooklyn's competitors are producing a counterfeit bagel. "A New York bagel is boiled and baked,' he declares in a thick Brooklyn accent, singling out one rival who has carved out a small empire. "His is steamed and baked.'

On a tour of the bakery, which hums and sweats as hundreds of bagels make their way from mixer to freezer to boiling water to oven, the more subdued but equally adamant Richard elaborates on the qualities that distinguish Brooklyn's bagels: the original New York recipe, the old-style machinery and baking on the hearth. "If you just started eating bagels a year ago, you wouldn't know what a bagel is,' he remarks as a worker drops dough rounds into a huge vat of boiling water. "The new market, they're not bagel aficionados.'

As a mass of pulsating dough is slowly cut and formed, Friedman concedes that one of the machines is a new model that doesn't knead as well as the older ones. And among the bakery's 20 varieties, you can find such newfangled creations as blueberry, chocolate chip and even jalapeno. "Still, the secret is, our goods are baked,' he intones in a voice that betrays only a hint of levity. "All the others are half-baked.'

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