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This city here in North Carolina aims to make better bagels than New York City

Button & Co. bagels are stacked up on wooden poles so employees can quickly see what's available. (Courtesy of Evan Sung)

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — A search for the best pulled pork barbecue or biscuits and gravy are fine reasons to hop a flight to North Carolina, but if you’re looking for a great New York-style bagel? Bless your heart.

That is, until recently, as an influx of Northern-bred residents has led to some legitimate contenders in the bagel landscape.

Among them is Asheville’s Button & Co. Bagels (Button & Co. Bagels, 32 S. Lexington Ave., Asheville, NC, 28801 USA), where chef Katie Button is putting a regional spin on the beloved foodstuff.

“We really want our bagels to have a sense of place. That’s really important,” Button, a two-time James Beard Award finalist and the executive chef at Cúrate in Asheville, tells CNN Travel.

“I didn’t just want to bring New York to southern Appalachia.”

Going beyond cinnamon raisin

While Button’s bagels will follow a process similar to New York-style bagels — a sourdough starter, boiled, then baked — many of the ingredients are specific to the region, starting with sorghum syrup, made from a grass that grows in North Carolina, instead of a more typical barley malt syrup used in a New York bagel’s dough and boil.

The syrup is found more prominently in the shop’s fig and sorghum bagel, a seasonal flavor that’s their take on cinnamon raisin, which Button noted most shops offer as their sweet flavor option.

“I started thinking, why? It doesn’t have to be cinnamon raisin, it could literally be anything,” she said. “Figs grow around here. It just felt like it made sense for where we are.”

But there’s one ingredient that can’t be all local. In her research and recipe testing, Button found that there’s a reason the South has always been more about biscuits than bagels — and it has nothing to do with the tap water in New York.

“It actually has to do with the wheat that grows well in the South,” she said, explaining that spring wheat grown in the North has the high gluten quantity necessary for the chewy texture bagels are known for. To get the right bite, the shop will blend flour from Asheville-based Carolina Ground with an organic northern wheat flour.

Button said she saw the bagel shop as filling a void in the Asheville market, but it also offers a bit of nostalgia for the chef, who was born in South Carolina but raised in New Jersey.

“We just always think about what’s missing. If I wanted to eat out in Asheville, what am I missing in the food scene here that was something I really wanted?” she said. “I’m a Southern girl who’s spent a lot of time in the New York and New Jersey area, so I was desperately missing a bagel shop with smoked fish and the whole thing.”

At Button & Co. Bagels, that means gravlax, pastrami and sumac-rubbed sablefish along with a variety of jams, pickles and preserves and bottled celery, root beer and strawberry soda — all made in-house. A selection of schmears comes from Three Graces Dairy in nearby Marshall., developed at Button’s request.

“We reached out to them and they came up with this amazing product,” Button said of the “quadruple cream” spread. “It’s like cream cheese but a million times better. It’s creamy and light and it’s got a little bit of tanginess to it.”

Looking for a taste of home

Button isn’t the only North Carolinian looking for a taste from their former home. Between 2012 and 2016, New York and New Jersey were the largest source of new residents to North Carolina, according to Carolina Population Center data.

“They’re buying bigger plots of land or farms, or they want more space in suburbia compared to living in a city,” said Kristen Baughman, a Raleigh-based food and beverage promoter with a background in North Carolina agriculture. “I think they’re really wanting spots that remind them of home, that comfort.”

In Raleigh, Benchwarmers Bagels (Benchwarmers Bagels, 500 E. Davis St., Raleigh, NC, 27601 USA) is one of a handful of new and expanding shops vying for that market. And in a bit of serendipity, one of its owners, Sam Kirkpatrick, was a bartender on the opening team at Cúrate, Button’s Spanish tapas restaurant in Asheville.

“It’s really exciting to be doing similar things in different ways in different parts of the state,” Kirkpatrick said.

Benchwarmers opened in February as part of Raleigh’s new Transfer Co. Food Hall and is a spinoff of Boulted Bread, where they grind their own flour and rye with the help of an onsite stone mill. Their bagels incorporate some of that flour and are wood-fired, a slight departure from typical practice.

“We feel like we have a lot of access to some flavor profiles that aren’t being explored in the bagel itself,” Kirkpatrick said, adding that they’re excited to put their own spin on the tried-and-true concept.

“Bagels are so tied to nostalgia and also place that I think that’s one reason they haven’t been messed with for a long time,” he said. “Eventually you long for something for long enough and then you’ve gotta get after it.”

Even with a centuries-old history, Baughman said bagels seem more popular than ever.

“I like to stalk food trends in New York and the bagel is bigger than ever there, too. With Russ and Daughters in New York and The Bagel Store in Brooklyn that created the rainbow bagel, it was all the rage,” she said.

Local shops like Button & Co. and Benchwarmers fill a space on the Venn diagram between comfort foods and socially conscious eating.

“People are more concerned with where their food is coming from,” Baughman said. “You can know you’re going to feel good eating one of their bagels compared to a [national chain]. There’s no preservatives, and you have to eat them fairly quickly or they’re gonna go bad. That’s the way all food should be, in my opinion.”

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