Finally, bagels have crossed the line.
In past years, the best versions of the Jewish breakfast staple could be found locally only in Pikesville, a community dotted with temples and synagogues. Now, reflecting a nationwide trend, the ethnic bread is popping up all over the Baltimore area -- most noticeably around Towson, where the York Road corridor has become a hotbed of bagel shops.
"There are more now on York Road than on Reisterstown Road," says Jay Caplan, who owns Cockeysville Bagel Shop and keeps track of the competition.
Bruegger's Bagel Bakery -- the nation's largest and fastest-growing bagel chain -- has a store in the center of Towson, just opened another in Timonium, and is pursuing a third location near Towson State University.
Nearby are two Bagel Works stores, a Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, a Bagelmeister and a soon-to-open Baltimore Bagel Co. And that's not counting the many area bakeries that offer bagels.
Each store has its own twist. Bruegger's offers "theater baking," allowing customers to watch through a window as bagels are prepared in the traditional boil-and-bake method. Others, such as Chesapeake Bagel, another national chain, stress that their dough is made on the premises.
The bagel boom doesn't show any signs of slowing down -- in Baltimore or nationwide.
"It's nothing new to me, but it is for the rest of the country," says former New Yorker Brad Turnelle, co-owner of the Chesapeake Bagel store in Lutherville. "It's exploding."
"The market remains in the early honeymoon stage with plenty of sales available for nearly anyone with an oven and some paper bags," Modern Baking, an industry publication, reported in its September issue.
A decade ago, only 20 percent of all Americans were aware of bagels. Now, 75 percent have at least heard of the baked rolls.
They also are eating more.
This year, the average American will eat 12.5 bagels, compared with 10.5 in 1994 and a mere five in 1985, according to David Jenkins, vice president of the Illinois-based NPD Group, which studies eating trends.
That might not seem like much to bagelwise Easterners. But in the nation's heartland, many are just jumping onto the bagel bandwagon.
All this translates into almost $1 billion in sales of bagels and bagel-related products in the United States, says Marilyn Bagel -- yes, that's her real name -- author of "The Bagel Bible."
She and others cite nutrition and convenience as reasons for the bagel craze. "They're low-fat, filling and easy on the run," says Mr. Caplan, who has been in the food business for 14 years.
She adds, "Bagels have become a more universal food. They're like tacos and pizza."
But, surprisingly, given all the fancy-flavored bagels in the market, the enduring plain bagel is the most popular.
"People don't always like to try new things. A plain bagel is safer than garlic to take to an office meeting," laughs Randy Bielski, co-owner of Bagel Works.
Of course, with tempting variations such as sun-dried-tomato bagels and chocolate chip bagels, everyone has a favorite.
"My mother always has to have a banana walnut bagel with carrot walnut raisin [cream cheese]," said Marie Mitchell of Baldwin, eating breakfast with her mother, Marie Davis, at Chesapeake Bagel recently. "She's got to have one a day."
Of course, Mrs. Mitchell, 52, wasn't just watching her mother empty-handed. "I like the bacon, lettuce and tomato on onion bagel, toasted," she said.
Both women also are sold on fresh-baked bagels.
"I don't get them at the grocery store any more. They're not the same. They're smaller, not as fresh, and doughier," said Mrs. Mitchell, who also bought two bags of Chesapeake bagels to take home.
Such feelings are perfectly understandable to Mrs. Bagel.
"Bagels are the teddy bear of foods," she says. "They're comfort food. They're cuddly. . . . Bagels are an emotional experience."