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Why bagels?

February 22, 2017

 

I guess the short answer is, I needed a distraction.  I needed something to deter my neurotic fixations in my somewhat depressed 29-year-old brain.  I needed a project that had nothing to do with my work, nothing to do with the work in the creative lives of the friends around me, and something that was niche enough that no one could tell me how to go about it (ok, even in my need for distraction, I am petulant and don't want to be told what to do).

 

But why bagels?  Born and raised in the Texas Hill Country, bagels weren't exactly a fixture in my day to day life.  I will say, I do remember my first bagel experience.  I was maybe 8 when the first bagel joint opened in San Antonio (a mediocre franchise. I won't name names.).  My dad’s bagel description was "like donuts, but healthier" (which… as much as I’d love to pretend bagels are a “health food”, isn't true, but that was 90s nutrition logic for you).  For the next few years, on the special occasions we'd find ourselves over there, my go-to bagel was a waxy strawberry flavor, very toasted, covered in strawberry jam.

 

... I'm so sorry, y'all.  My bagel tasting palette back then was coated in Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies and Fruitopia.  I didn't know any better.

 

Legit bagel shops were mythological places I only saw in pop culture, like basements (did you know there are no basements in the Texas Hill Country, but they're on TV SHOWS ALL THE TIME? They seemed so cool. Total fantasy to me.).  I saw bagels on Seinfeld, where I figured out steam can have something to do with the baking process (and also can destroy Elaine's coiffed bangs and mascara).  I saw them on You've Got Mail, where Tom Hanks waxed poetic about how the flour at H&H Bagels was pumped underground with a truck and made the air on the street powdery magic (side note: WAS THAT TRUE?).

 

In college, I ate a lot of sad, prepackaged bagels, heated in my dorm microwave.  When I graduated, I moved to LA for a little while to be a production assistant, and ate a lot of slightly-less-sad bagels from craft service tables.  Then, throughout my 20s, I found myself going on multiple trips to New York, and got to enjoy the city with New York friends (i.e. avoid Times Square and tourism, and instead hang in my friends' Brooklyn apartments and eat where they eat).  That's when I really learned to love bagels.  Every bagel experience I had before those trips just felt sorta like... well, they really weren't experiences until that point.  Truly, until then I was just eating prepackaged, bland, round bread with a lot of sugar.  Hell, I hadn't even tasted lox yet!

 

Coupled with the travel, a lot of New Yorkers simply ended up in my daily life over the past decade.  A lot of y'all seem to find your way to Austin!  I befriended New Yorkers, went to grad school with New Yorkers, worked with New Yorkers, crushed on New Yorkers, dated some New Yorkers.  And, not that this was the focal point of these connections, but damn, it's only in recent years I've realized, like any food experience, how intensely particular, how personal one can become about their bagel after they've had a really good one.  I mean, I’d like to hope at least one of my northeastern friends reading this right now gasped, groaned, winced, or eye-rolled when I mentioned that the only bagels I knew for years were SUPER TOASTED STRAWBERRY BAGELS WITH STRAWBERRY JAM.

 

So, ok.  Back to why I spent 2016 learning how to make bagels.  End of 2015 was tough for a few reasons, all of which thematically fell under a late-20s “dear god what am I doing with my life/I have no control/being a woman is fucking exhausting/I know I’m privileged but I’m not happy” umbrella of reasons.  My smallest morsel of directionless solace came from tweeting the banality of daily life to friends and strangers (hashtag quintessential millennial sadness).  Tweeting about Cheers, texts from my mom, the salad bar at Whole Foods, Rory Gilmore being a terrible journalist, my love of the word "bramble" (if it's not obvious, I'm digging into my 12/15 archive as I type this).

 

And then, one dull morning I went to eat a bagel, alone.  It wasn't that great, but it wasn't awful.  It looked good.  I tweeted it.

 

Quickly, my local bud Lewis responded.  Lewis is a fantastically curious guy, who co-organizes Austin’s chapter of Nerd Nite, previously was Texas’s premiere seaweed farmer, and nowadays is a financial planner (plugging for Lewis- if you’re in the market for a financial planner, you want one as cool as Lewis Weil, check out Money Positive!).  We Twitter-bantered about bagels for a bit. And we Twitter-bantered about the nearly nonexistent bagel scene in Austin.  And then Lewis proposed an idea.

 (lox curing and lox shop plans still TBD)

 

Cut to a couple weeks later, we're meeting at the counter of Salt & Time, skimming through The Baker's Apprentice, talking about the supplies we'll need for our first batch, and scheming about sourdough starters, everything topping, everything pizza crust, curing lox...

 

And then we made our first bagel batch.  It was fun!  Weeks later, we made our second batch (joined by Lewis's bud, who cured the most delicious lox I've ever tasted).  That was fun!  And then, we got the nerve to make 100 bagels for a bagel bud brunch with our pal Colin.  That was fun (!), but also terrifying (!), with plenty of learning lessons that resulted in some ok but admittedly lesser bagels (just fyi,100 bagels shouldn't be made in one go round in a kitchenaid stand mixer ever).

 

Then I tried making some on my own- they were a laughable disaster that for whatever reason I still shamefully brought to a party (plus I accidentally branded my forearm in the 500 degree oven with a permanent scar to forever remind me of those garbage bagels).  I tried making more on my own, and while they were not as embarrassingly inedible, something still was off.  So, I begged my bagel bud Lewis to bake more with me to regain my baking confidence.  Then more on my own.  Then more.  Bagel iteration.

 

This was across 2016.  A lot happened in that year, important things for me personally (and, ya know, also things that pushed our country into a dystopian political landscape).  In that year, I found the distraction I needed at the end of 2015.  I found an outlet to fixate my energy towards when things were feeling off-kilter… it was bagels.  Not quite where I expected to find joy, patience, happiness, but there you go.  I have complicated feelings about the cesspool that is Twitter, but, if I didn't tweet that mundane breakfast, would I have baked hundreds of bagels in 2016?  Life is weird. 

 

This bagel baking has gone beyond a distracting/delicious novelty.  I’ve gained a greater appreciation for bakers, food prep, food and community, food history, creating meals for those you love (these are all things I hope to write about in the future here).  I figured it needed a spot to live on the internet, so here I am, and here you are! I don't know exactly where we go next- I've toyed with finding opportunities to bake in a commercial kitchen, possibly plan some local pop-ups, meet and talk to bakers here in Austin (or in other cities!), finally cure some lox myself, bake with other friends, bake with strangers (!).  But, for the moment, let’s start by writing about bagels and feelings.  I'm finding my blogging footing, so thanks for any patience and/or theoretical encouragement.  Also, I promise promise promise... next blog post won't hit 1200 words.  Yikes.

 

Ok, so hi.  I'm Jo, I bake bagels.  Welcome to Jo Bagel.

 

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Hi, I'm Jo.  I live in Marfa, and seem to be fixated on trying to master baking a perfect New York bagel.  In the west Texas desert.  Yep. More about me.

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