A short history of the bagel.

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Nov. 12 2008 7:00 AM

A Short History of the Bagel

From ancient Egypt to Lender's.

(Continued from Page 1)

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."

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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.

Joan Nathan, a contributor to the New York Times food section, is the author of Jewish Cooking in America and eight other cookbooks. She likes poppy-seed bagels with the center hollowed out and toasted with butter.

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