When my family first moved to Larchmont, N.Y., in 1946, my father had a feeling that the neighbors living behind us were Jewish. In those days, you didn’t broadcast your religion, so he devised a plan that would reveal their cultural background. We would go to the Bronx and bring back some bagels. If our neighbors knew what the rolls were, they were Jewish. If they stared at them in bewilderment, we would know they were not. To my father’s delight, as soon as our neighbors saw the bagels, they recognized them. Nowadays, dad’s devious plan to determine a neighbor’s religion wouldn’t work. After all, who doesn’t know what a bagel is? But what are the origins of this once-mysterious bread, and what happened between 1946 and today that turned the bagel into a trans-cultural and all-American breakfast bun?
After years of research on Jewish food in America, I thought I had discovered all there was to know about the bagel and its journey. But then I read Maria Balinska’s lively and well-researched book, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. Her book has filled in many of the questions I had about the bagel and raised new ones, too.
The basic roll-with-a-hole concept is centuries old. No surprise, really, as there’s a practical advantage to this design—it’s possible to thread such a roll on a stick or a string, facilitating transport. Balinska identifies several possible candidates for the ur-bagel from around the world, including the taralli—hard, round crackers flavored with fennel that have been the local snack for centuries in Puglia, Italy. She also mentions the Roman buccellatum and the Chinese girde but neglects to note that even the ancient Egyptians had a bagellike treat. Just a few weeks ago, I came across Egyptian hieroglyphics at the Louvre in Paris, and among the depictions of daily life were rolls with a hole.
The evidence suggests that the first rolls with a hole, those of ancient Egypt and of the greater Mediterranean, came in two types: the soft, sesame-studded variety, called bagele in Israel today, eaten plain or dipped in za’atar (a spice combination of wild oregano, sesame seeds, and salt); and a pretzellike crispy Syrian ka’ak flavored much like taralli. Neither is boiled, a distinguishing characteristic of American bagels.
Polish-born and half-Jewish, Balinska, who works at the BBC in London, tells us that the boiled and baked bagel as we know it comes from her homeland. She tells the story of the Krakow bagel, which was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Although the story is completely speculative and perhaps even fictitious, it is a piece of gastronomic lore that has endured throughout the ages. As the story goes, 17th-century Poland was the breadbasket of Europe, and King Jan Sobieski was the first king not to confirm the decree of 1496 limiting the production of white bread and obwarzanek (bagellike rolls whose name derives from a word meaning “to parboil”) to the Krakow bakers guild. This meant that Jews could finally bake bread within the confines of the city walls. Furthermore, when Sobieski saved Austria from the Turkish invaders, a baker made a roll in the shape of the king’s stirrup and called it a beugel (the Austrian word for stirrup). As Balinska says, “Whatever its origin, the story of the bagel being created in honor of Jan Sobieski and his victory in Vienna has endured.”
But the bagel has endured through the centuries not only because of its heroic legend. It also had the advantage of lasting longer than freshly baked bread because the boiling gave the roll an outer sheen and a crunchy, protective crust. As Balinska points out, if it got slightly stale, it was dunked in hot liquid to soften it. Once bagels became popular in Krakow, the Jewish bakers began making them in their own bakeries due to the strictness of Jewish dietary laws.
It is unclear when the first bagels made their way to the United States, but 70 bakeries existed on the Lower East side by 1900. In 1907 the International Beigel Bakers’ Union was created and from then on monopolized bagel production in New York City. What is also certain is that immigrants from Eastern Europe, with their cravings for the foods of the old country, sparked the New York bagel craze. Balinska explains that the Jews of the Lower East Side created a demand for the breads of their homeland—rye, challah, and bagels.
The ‘50s were a turning point. It was after World War II, and Americans were trying to get back to normalcy and reconcile the atrocities of the war. They were, for the first time, somewhat philo-Semitic. In addition, Jews were rapidly assimilating, moving to other parts of the city, expanding their culinary horizons, and sharing their own culinary traditions with the rest of New York.
In the early 1950s, Family Circle included a recipe for bageles (their spelling). The copy read: “Stumped for the Hors d’oeuvres Ideas? Here’s a grand one from Fannie Engle. ‘Split these tender little triumphs in halves and then quarters. Spread with sweet butter and place a small slice of smoked salmon on each. For variations, spread with cream cheese, anchovies or red caviar. (They’re also delicious served as breakfast rolls.)’ ” Engle, who later wrote TheJewish Festival Cookbook, did not mention the Jewish Sunday morning ritual of lox, bagel, and cream cheese—an American concoction that was just taking off, spurred on most probably by Joseph Kraft’s advertising blitz for Philadelphia Cream Cheese. It soon became an American alternative to the other Sunday trilogy of bacon, eggs, and toast. In 1951, the bagel made a big appearance in the Broadway comedy Bagel and Yox,introducing the word bagel into such mainstream magazines as Time.Balinska says that “one of the attractions of Bagel and Yox was the fact that freshly baked bagels and cream cheese were handed out to the audience during intermission.”
At this historical moment, Murray Lender hit upon a method for mass distribution of bagels. His father, Harry, had come from Poland to New Haven, Conn., and had opened a wholesale bagel bakery in 1927, one of the few outside of New York. In this small, diverse town, ethnic communities intermingled, sampling one another’s local specialties. After a while, Balinska explains, it became clear to the Lenders that the Jewish bagel was just as appetizing to the Irish and the Italians as it was to the Jews. The turning point came when Murray, having returned from the Korean War in 1956, bought a freezer. He and his father soon realized that they could deliver thawed bagels to retailers without marring their flavor. A subsequent innovation was the packaging of bagels in batches of six in polyethylene bags, making them even more durable. Soon, Lender’s Bagels shared shelf space in supermarkets with household names like Pepperidge Farm and Wonder Bread. Over the next decade, supermarket sales did nothing but grow. And with the advent of the frozen-food aisle, frozen bagels became an affordable, convenient food that could be shipped to grocery stores in far-flung parts of the country that had never before seen one.
Bagelmania hit the ground running in this country with chains opening up all over the place, replacing, to a certain extent, the doughnut shops of the earlier part of the 20th century. (Today, America’s most popular doughnut shop, Dunkin’ Donuts, also sells bagels.) It is my suspicion that bagels became so popular because, unlike Mexican burritos or Chinese egg rolls, they don’t taste ethnic. They weren’t marketed as Jewish and weren’t sold in kosher sections of grocery stores. To the bread- and sandwich-loving American population, the bagel was simply another bun with a bite—different enough to satisfy a craving for innovation, but not different enough to appear exotic.
So, it makes sense that today’s bagel bakeries are not necessarily Jewish-owned or run. A Puerto Rican family owns H&H Bagels in New York. John Marx, a Cincinnatian of German background, bakes 36 different bagel varieties, including Cincinnati Red bagels, tropical fruit, and taco bagels. And the best bagel bakery in New York, according to many, is one owned by a Thai couple on the Upper West Side.
Bagels are clearly no longer specifically a Jewish food. At some point in the middle of the 20th century, their position from the Jewish bun to the American breakfast bread shifted. The exact moment is unclear, but one moment stands out in my mind. In 1998, when I was first filming my PBS television series, Jewish Cooking in America, Lender’s, which by then had been bought and sold numerous times, was one of our sponsors. For this cooking show featuring kosher food, they sent us an underwriting spot depicting a perfectly toasted bagel with Swiss cheese and ham! Oy! I almost plotzed. To me, that moment was the ultimate assimilation of the bagel into American life.