Soul Food

Todd Coleman

"I'll order the bagels and lox," I overheard my father say with gravitas in his voice, as he and my mother planned my grandfather's funeral. I was five years old, and it was the first time I made the connection between life, death, and cold-cured fish sandwiches.

Wherever we went, there they were on someone's dining room table—during wedding brunches, brises, baby namings, shivahs, my cousin Marcus's bar mitzvah, and every other momentous life occasion, both joyous and sad. The ubiquitous tray of bagel and lox sandwiches, garnished with slivers of red onion and tomato, always beckoned. A child of New York Jews growing up in Queens in the 1960s, I yearned for the food that, as my grandfather had explained it, symbolized the sweet circle of life (bagels) and the saltiness of tears (lox).

A few years later, bagel shops had sprung up all over our neighborhood. My father took their appearance as an opportunity to bring bagels and lox home most Sunday mornings, not just on special days. This both desanctified the sandwich and meant leftovers for Monday's school lunch—assembled by my mother, wrapped in plastic, and deposited in a paper bag. While the other kids ate their bologna or peanut butter, I felt privileged to savor each bite of silky fish, rich cream cheese, and chewy bagel. —Elissa Altman, founder of Poormansfeast.com