The Healing Power of Bagel and Schmear

When my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma last year, I turned to the Jewish tradition of appetizing foods for comfort.

A tablescape spread of salmox lox, lemon slices, sesame seed bagels, sliced vegetables, whitefish salad and pickles.

Illustration by Flo Leung.

“I’ve got the bagels; you bring the schmear.”

My mother is calling from the hospital to tell me that Dad’s chemo treatment didn’t work. His lymphoma will continue to progress. He might have years still left with us, or he might have months. In the meantime, we’ve got to figure out the logistics of moving him from the hospital back to the house he’s lived in for 39 years. The house where he raised my sister and me.
As Mom delivers the bad news, the conversation naturally turns to food. It always does with our family. What should we eat when we get together to discuss next steps? The answer when things get hard is usually bagels and the stuff you “schmear” on them, such as cream cheese, smoked fish and egg salad. Maybe served along with a little babka (a chocolate-filled braided bread) or a cheese blintz—foods that are otherwise known as Jewish “appetizing.” Yes, that’s appetizing as a noun.

When you think of Ashkenazi Jewish comfort foods, matzo ball soup, latkes or pastrami on rye might come to mind. But milestones in my family are more often marked with chewy bagels, heaping bowls of salty tuna and smoked whitefish salad, and a platter of tender smoked salmon, or “lox,” a food my mother once compared to actual gold.

Lox and cream cheese, along with other appetizing—including an abundance of bagels—were present at my bat mitzvah, my university graduation and my wedding shower. At my eighth-birthday party, when other kids might have devoured pizza or hot dogs, my mom served up Jem and the Holograms–themed paper plates loaded with mini tuna and egg-salad sandwiches. I went to a Jewish school, so who would complain?

We lean on these foods for solemn occasions especially. My grandmother’s shiva (the week-long period of intense mourning after someone dies) featured a massive appetizing spread—including rugelach (rolled cookies with sweet filling) and smoked herring mixed with sour cream—assembled by family and friends. After the final shofar sounds at the end of Yom Kippur, the sombre day of atonement, we rush home, ravenous, to break the traditional 25-hour fast with bagels and babka. A meat-free, carb-forward meal just lands easier in a stomach that’s empty from fasting or grief.

When my dad comes home from the hospital, 20 pounds lighter than when he went in and shakily pushing a walker, a bagel thickly spread with cream cheese and topped with a pile of bright-pink lox is waiting for him on the kitchen table. The air feels heavy as we sit down to eat together, bowls of tuna and egg salad set to be piled on freshly baked pumpernickel, sesame and poppy­seed. This is the moment when I absorb the ­reality of the situation: Dad isn’t going to get better. I’m going to have to learn to exist without his dorky puns much sooner than I’d expected. I’m not ready.

While bagel and schmear are famously part of the New York zeitgeist, appetizing foods have been part of my family’s story since my great-grandparents landed in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century. There’s a religious component to the tradition—according to Kashruth, Jewish kosher laws, it’s forbidden to mix milk with chicken or beef. (Fish is okay, however.) Appetizing foods are considered “dairy,” or foods that are safe to eat with milk products. “For most of my childhood, we only ever ate out at dairy restaurants,” my mom tells me when I ask about our family’s deep connection to this category of food. “When you go to an appetizing store or restaurant, you can be sure meat isn’t allowed on the premises.”

The cuisine as we know it today has its roots in Eastern Europe. When my family and other Jews fled to Toronto to escape the pogroms of Russia and Poland, they brought their food traditions with them. Back in the old country, they’d started their meals with cold appetizers, like pickled and smoked fish. Called “forshpayz” in Yiddish, these foods were exactly what the community wanted to eat as urban newcomers who often worked long hours for little pay.

“When [Eastern European Jews] came to Canada, they had very little means to put food on the table, so they wanted foods that were inexpensive and familiar,” says Ruthie Ladovsky, a third-generation owner of United Bakers, the 111-year-old dairy restaurant where a few of my ancestors ate their first meals in Toronto. “Some of the cheap foods at the time were forshpayz, like herring and salads, and a schmear on a bagel. You felt like your stomach was full.”

Many Jewish immigrants, my great-grandfathers included, came to Toronto alone, leaving families behind while they established themselves. They were free from the terror of the world they’d escaped but now faced anti-Semitism and poverty in the slums of a new city in a strange country. A full stomach and a reminder of home would have been comforting in uncertain times.

Though many of the old appetizing stores that once dotted the Jewish neighbourhoods of North American cities are now gone, there’s been something of an Ashkenazi-food renaissance happening, with Jewish restaurateurs doing contemporary spins on the classics. In Montreal, a city defined as much by its bagels as it is by poutine, go-to brunch spot Arthurs Nosh Bar offers the Latke Smorgasbord, a delightful mash-up of the traditional potato pancake, scrambled egg, Israeli salad, caviar, gravlax and a challah bun. At chef Anthony Rose’s sublime Schmaltz Appetizing in Toronto, you can order decadent sandwiches like the Chazzer (Yiddish for “pig,” as in gluttonous), which is a fluffy poppy seed bagel loaded with pastrami gravlax (salmon cured with salt, sugar and herbs like dill), horseradish, cream cheese and salmon caviar.

Rose decided to evolve appetizing to suit 21st-century foodies, in part because of the significant role bagels played in his Jewish childhood. “My grandfather Simon would go to the store every Sunday to pick up fresh bagels and deliver them to us,” he tells me. “Bagels are pretty near and dear to my heart.”

I’m only half-joking when I say my heart may actually be a bagel. Appetizing is my soul food—a constant in my life no matter what changes. As I sit with my family in the kitchen of my childhood, bagel in hand, to face what comes next with Dad’s illness, the tension dissipates with every bite. As we schmear and nosh together, we tell jokes and connect in a way that’s been elusive since Dad got sick.

The bagel fills an anxious hole in the pit of my stomach. The briny lox and velvety cream cheese call up memories that link me to the generations of my family who suffered and celebrated, mourned and rejoiced with this food on their tables. They’re all here with me. And I know Dad will be too, whatever the future holds.

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