The Secret History of Bagels

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Photo by Ryan Stiner

I could go on about bagels at length if only because I grew up on them -- bagel eating was almost a daily routine for me. But the truth is that, although I'm personally passionate about them, this post actually isn't all that personal.

Bagels seem simple enough when you start. In the New York Times a few years ago, Ed Levine wrote, quite factually and descriptively:

A bagel is a round bread made of simple, elegant ingredients: high-gluten flour, salt, water, yeast and malt. Its dough is boiled, then baked, and the result should be a rich caramel color; it should not be pale and blond. A bagel should weigh four ounces or less and should make a slight cracking sound when you bite into it instead of a whoosh. A bagel should be eaten warm and, ideally, should be no more than four or five hours old when consumed. All else is not a bagel.

While a bagel is accurately "a round bread" with a hole in the middle, it's really so, so much more than that. The way we see it around here is that it's always the story behind the food -- not just the bit that we hold in our hands or put in our mouths -- that makes it so much more than just something to eat. Otherwise, why not just go for some of those pills that they used to "eat" on The Jetsons instead of sitting down to enjoy equally nutritious "slow" meals that have actually been cooked?

Bagels, it turns out, are very much a bread thread that pulls through hard times, dreams, visions, organizational development, good luck, and good food.

It Begins with a Dream

Our dream to make bagels wasn't really about doing something sensationally "innovative" in the way that the word is usually used -- this wasn't about inventing the iPod or coming up with the theory of relativity. It was really kind of simple. We wanted to look back in time to the bagel's origin so we could bake a really good, hand-shaped, crusty, chewy bagel we would feel good about making, that would be as close as possible to what was being baked hundreds of years ago.

I know there are folks who still take issue with what "the perfect bagel" is. Getting the world to agree on what a makes proper bagel might make the Middle East peace process look easy, and I've long since stopped trying to convince anyone. Although I'm sure there's not really any perfect bagel out there, I think that what we're doing holds its own against the best New York has to offer. As with most all of what we do that's particularly special, the bagels are very true to tradition. We make them according to hundred-plus-year-old techniques; they're very chewy, hold a crust even if the humidity doesn't cooperate, have a bit of a crunch, and I think are pretty darned delicious.

(I should mention Montreal too, because it's worth going there to eat the bagels. We went before we started and have been back several times to re-check and re-taste. Interestingly, the Montreal bagel uses eggs and sugar -- the bagels are much sweeter -- and no salt. An acquired taste for anyone who's not from there, they're worth a trip to Quebec's capital city to eat one warm from the oven at either of the two spots that still bake them -- Fairmount or St. Viatour.)

Back to Bagels; A Hole Lotta Good History

The bagel's known history goes back at least a good six centuries, and, in practice, probably more than that. While we know them in the here-and-now of 21st-century America, the bagel's likely rollout to the world probably began in Poland. In her excellent new book, The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Maria Balinska shares a couple theories of their origin.

Balinska first suggests the possibility that they came East to Poland from Germany as part of a migration flow during the 14th century. At the time, pretzels (the thick bread of the German variety, not the American kind that comes in plastic bags) were making their way out of their original home in the monasteries and being made into readily available feast day bread. German immigrants, brought to Poland to help provide people power for building the economy (immigration was then encouraged, not discouraged), brought the pretzels with them. In Poland, that theory goes, the German breads morphed into a round roll with a hole in the middle that came to be known in Poland as an obwarzanek. Written records of them appear as early as the 14th century.

Bagels, it turns out, are very much a bread thread that pulls through hard times, dreams, visions, organizational development, good luck, and good food.

They gained ground when then Queen Jadwiga, known for her charity and piety, opted to eat obwarzanek during Lent in lieu of the more richly flavored breads and pastries she enjoyed the rest of the year. While that might seem like quite a step in the context of Marie Antoinette's later "let them eat cake" comments, take note that, although Jadwiga was apparently pretty down-to-earth as queens go, obwarzanek at that time wasn't exactly the kind of inexpensive street food that bagels became a few centuries later.

Lent, then as now, was, of course, a period during which devout Christians consciously chose deprivation -- but what constitutes "deprivation" is relative. What the queen chose for her daily bread was, at the time, actually rather costly, as it was made from wheat, which was not cheap. Most Poles at that time could barely afford the cheaper, coarser breads from rye flour, so white wheat was pretty much off the table for all but the wealthy. Obwarzanek was primarily the province of princes, nobles, and men and women of means, but generally not for the poor.

Presented by

Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.

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