Confidence in Water Leads to Confidence in Bagels

The latest look into the impact of New York’s water supply on its bagels yields a new potential factor: pride

Can a city’s pride in its tap water lead to pride in its most beloved delicacies?
Can a city’s pride in its tap water lead to pride in its most beloved delicacies? Image courtesy of Flickr user, amls.

New York City tap water is consistently rated the best in the country, and New Yorkers believe that only their water can create the best tasting foods. “Whether it’s actually true that New York water makes better bagels is irrelevant,” writes Jessica Sidman in the cover story of the latest issue of the Washington City Paper. “The difference is that New Yorkers want to believe it.”

Sidman’s reporting looks at how the municipal water treatment agency, DC Water, wants restaurants and breweries to tout local water as a deciding ingredient in their recipes. DC Brau Brewery take pride in the fact that they use local water, albeit filtered, and the Pretzel Bakery‘s Sean Haney says that D.C. water is a key ingredient to his perfectly-textured goods. Some complain that the amount of chlorine in D.C. water negatively affects the taste of baked goods, while others claim to see no difference in tap versus filtered water. But the big change most recently hasn’t been in the filtration process, but in the marketing. DC Water has spent $160,000 to change its public persona (especially needed after an image-damaging lead incident), and one of those major initiatives is restoring faith not only in the cleanliness of tap water, but in the magic of it as well.

It’s not about the water, it’s all about confidence and pride. Florence Wilpon, the owner of internationally ranked Ess-a-Bagel in Manhattan, is no exception. She believes in bagels. More importantly, she believes in her bagels. I asked her if she thought being in New York makes bagels taste better. “Yes,” she says. “Yes. Absolutely.”

“People think it’s the water, but it’s not the water,” says Wilpon (sorry, Baltimore). “It’s the people and the culture and the time.”

Where did this long-standing belief come from? The claim has always been that because of a superior water supply, bagels are simply not the same anywhere else. The argument goes that the water in Brooklyn, New York, which comes from the Catskills and picks up a wide array of sediment along its way to the pipes, contains the only successful chemicals in the world for making good, chewy bagels. CNN reveals that the Brooklyn Water Company has created an entire franchise based on this belief alone, recreating the exact composition of Brooklyn water from Florida to India. Steven Fassberg, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Water Company and its CEO, says that “there is a science behind it and I believe in it enough to prove that science.”

Slate’s Explainer points out why that’s all wrong. “Water chemistry influences baking, and New York’s somewhat unique water probably plays a minor role in making tender and chewy bagels,” he writes. But he argues that the real difference between bagels in New York and bagels in the rest of the world is just a matter of cutting corners. The dough must be allowed ample time to ferment, and the bagels must be boiled before baking, a process that is both expensive and time consuming.

There are bad bagels in New York, but the places that serve up these spongy, bland products stand little chance in a city that takes so much pride in its bagel industry. And that pride, says Sidman, comes from a citywide confidence in tap water. If DC Water has its way, Washingtonians too will have bragging rights.

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