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One Man

It's time to make the BAGELS

It's time to choose. I've thought about it, weighed my options and considered the differences. Time's up. This decision I make may be the most important of my lifetime. My future hinges in the balance, and its importance cannot be overstated. What's it gonna be? Bagels or donuts?

I choose bagels. I know - everyone loves donuts! Donuts are fun! Donuts are frosted! Donuts come in round and stick shapes! But just like that first kiss with your sixth-grade girlfriend in your neighbor's basement, the first bite of a jelly donut is a brief moment of bliss followed by hours of guilt, regret and lies.

Bagels are more like your college girlfriend who writes in a journal, throws a Frisbee with skill and has friends with goatees who don't own sneakers. Bagels will fill you up with lots of things, but regret isn't one of them.

It's 2 a.m. on a brisk October night, and I'm standing alone on Main Street, my love of bagels leading me here. I'm on the curb outside The Works, the only area bakery to still boil its bagels, as the baker motions for me to come inside. I'm here to help bake bagels for the morning rush, watching and learning from Jason Scheiman, one of The Works's bakers. Jason greets me, and we walk to the back where he starts prepping for the day.

''I have to get the pastries set and in the oven - we want to start the bagels at 4 so we're ready for the first customers at 6,'' he says as he scans the day's orders on a clipboard.

Jason joined the baker ranks at The Works three years ago, and he handles this early morning shift only a few days a week. He came to Concord by way of Fort Wayne, Ind., famous not for its bagels, but for being the birthplace of legendary pro bowling commentator Chris Schenkel. Jason's been baking since high school, starting in the commercial business before taking this job.

''I kind of fell into baking and found out I was good at it,'' he says as he starts in on the muffins, scones and cinnamon twists.

I thought we'd be elbow-deep in flour and yeast by now, making the bagels from scratch, but Jason dispels that notion.

''We're too small to make the dough ourselves, so we get them frozen,'' as he takes me into the deep freezer to show me the bagels in their embryonic stage, palm-size ugly ducklings, frozen lumps, unimpressive and nothing like the bagels I've eaten here. Jason explains how these crude blobs transform into bagels.

''We do all the proofing here - we give them time to defrost and allow the yeast to rise. Sometimes we proof them for 36 hours,'' he says adding, ''That lets the flavor develop as the dough sets. The bagel's flavor profile depends on the proofing.''

Jason slides the muffins, cookies and other still-frozen morsels into the giant reel oven, a massive multi-shelved wonder that rotates its five steel planks around and around, like a mini Ferris wheel furnace. And he continues explaining bagel baking: ''After we take these out of the oven, we'll get going on the bagels - first we boil, and then we bake.''

Jason motions toward a giant steel kettle, the water bubbling as the gas flames heats it to a boil.

''Boiling bagels is the old-fashioned way to do it - lots of places will steam them, but we boil ours.''

For a moment I imagine a toddler learning to swim in this kettle, or maybe the kettle as a kitchen conversation piece for the upscale cannibal - it's really quite impressive.

The store's now filled with an overwhelming scent of sugar, cinnamon and fresh bread as I help Jason slide the pastries out and plate them near the register.

It's close to 4 a.m. Time to start the bagels. The kettle's boiling, and the reel oven's hot and ready for dough. Jason has wheeled the huge rack of bagels, now swollen with flavor, next to the kettle, and he starts sliding boards of bagels into the water. In one motion he grabs a giant ladle, gives the boiling bagels a swirl and scoops them out, dumping them onto the prep area.

''The boil's what gives the bagel that sheen and crust,'' he says as he takes the first batch and coats them in cinnamon sugar, pushing them into the oven.

He lets them bake, checking once in a while for the ''oven spring,'' that telltale moment the baker knows a bagel's ready.

''It's about touch without touching,'' he says, handling each bagel gently and only for a moment.

Now it's my turn, and I slide a board of bagels into the water and fish them out. I coat one side in sesame, and Jason shows me how to line the bagels on the burlap, a metal board coated in fabric, sesame side down, placing them into the rotating oven.

He teaches me how to flip the bagels off the burlaps onto the metal shelves and how to brush away the water spots so the bagels don't stick, using an enormous broom to scrub off any water remnants before flipping the bagels.

My first flip attempt is a disaster, and Jason moves me aside to clean up my mess.

By the third or fourth burlap flip, I have the hang of it. He even lets me grab the huge wooden peel to slide the bagels out of the oven and corral them into their wire bins.

Bakers must have cast-iron fingers because these things are burning hot. It's a minor miracle these bagels don't end up on the floor.

Bit by bit the bins fill up - wheat, sesame, onion, salt, garlic, and multi-grain followed by plain, poppy seed and a dozen or so pumpkin bagels. The Works will sell about 10 boards of plain bagels alone today, almost 250 of that variety, and even more on a weekend.

Jason and the other bakers are here every day of the year, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

''People love our bagels, so we're open all the time,'' Jason tells me while we take a break, the wire bins full of warm bagels as the sun starts to peek through the early morning darkness on Main Street.

Before I head home and leave the job to the professional, Jason motions for me to grab one of the bagels I made. It's just out of the oven, and I slice it and add more than a little bit of cream cheese.

This one sesame bagel with plain cream cheese is better than the thousands of donuts I've eaten in my lifetime.

With each bite my conviction grows - I made the right choice, and life is good with more bagels.

(Email Tim at timcoshea@gmail.com)

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