A Short History of the Bagel
From ancient Egypt to Lender's.
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.
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.
Photograph of bagel on Slate's home page Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte.