The Secret History of Bagels

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weinzweig mar26 bagels.jpg

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.

Still one other version dates the first bagels to the late 17th century in Austria, saying that bagels were invented in 1683 by a Viennese baker trying to pay tribute to the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski. The king had led Austria (and hence Poland as well, since it was part of the empire) in repelling invading Turkish armies. Given that the king was famous for his love of horses, the baker decided to shape his dough into a circle that looked like a stirrup -- or beugel in German.

Bagels and the Fight Against Bias


Going back a bit, at the same time Germans were making their way to Poland, so too were a good number of Jews, which is where my ancestors would have gotten involved. In that era it was quite common in Poland for Jews to be prohibited from baking bread. This stemmed from the commonly held belief that Jews, viewed as enemies of the Church, should be denied any bread at all because of the holy Christian connection between bread, Jesus, and the sacrament. Strange though it sounds, Jews were often legally banned from commercial baking.

The bagel as Jewish food really came of age during the era of Polish history known as the "Nobles' Democracy." While intolerance and conflict reigned elsewhere, Poland was probably the preeminent country for tolerance, acceptance, education, and understanding. Unlike almost every other country in Europe, Poles identified themselves as citizens of their country rather than of any divisive framework based on religious, ethnic, or linguistic origins. This mindset created the environment where Jews were first allowed the opportunity to bake, and then sell, bread -- of which bagels were an integral part.

weinzweig mar26 bagels2.jpg

Photo by Ryan Stiner

The shift started to take place in the late 13th century. Balinska refers to the breakthrough code that came from the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that said, "Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians." To quote Balinska, "This was a radical step, so radical that (in reaction) in 1267 a group of Polish bishops forbade Christians to buy any foodstuffs from Jews, darkly hinting that they contained poison for the unsuspecting gentile." At some point, the theory goes, Jews were allowed to work with bread that was boiled, and they created the bagel to comply with his ruling.

Bagels, Politics, and Cultural Change


William Safire wrote in the New York Times in 1999, "A sea change in American taste took place at the beginning of this decade. The bagel overtook the doughnut in popularity. Today we spend three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on bagels, only a half-billion on doughnuts." As Mr. Safire, who is Jewish, wrote, "Although these baked goods are similar in shape, they are wholly different in character. Doughnuts are sweet and crumbly, with over 10 grams of fat; bagels are chewy and low in fat. Doughnuts are fun, with sugary smiles, sales peaking at Halloween; bagels are serious, ethnic and harder to digest." I'd agree on all counts.

Mr. Safire may be rather on the conservative end of the political spectrum, but bagels, once you examine their history, look decidedly liberal. While they started their culinary career as food for the well off, over the years bagels came to be everyday street food associated with poverty, not wealth. Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his 1969 memoir* A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, wrote of a day in 1908 during a childhood trip from Warsaw to Radzymin, "Sidewalk peddlers sold loaves of bread, baskets of bagels and rolls, smoked herring, hot peas, brown beans, apples, pears and plums."

When times were very tough in Poland, many poor Jews (and note that poverty was the way of life for most Polish Jews) turned to selling bagels on the street as a last resort, a way to earn a few pennies when there was no other way available.

Bagels also lean left because bakeries back in 19th-century Poland seem to have served much the same role cafés did in other countries -- they were where young people in the Jewish community would gather to discuss new, radical political ideas. Bakeries were safe spots to talk; there was always good reason to be there, so one didn't have to make excuses for being seen there. People of all political stripes and all ages went to see the baker regularly, so stopping by to score six bagels or a loaf of rye was as normal as could be. But dreams, visions, and generally unacceptable (if not often outright illegal) ideas about socialism, communism, Zionism, and anarchism were rising along with the bagel dough.

In this past century, bagels leaned left because bagel bakers worked under very difficult conditions, often in airless basements, toiling fourteen hours or more, six or seven days a week. Bagel bakers, and later bagel bakers unions, were rather prominent in left wing politics.

Although bagels clearly had multi-ethnic origins in Poland, here in the US they came fairly quickly to be associated with Jewish culture. Like blintzes, latkes, pastrami, and rye bread, which came from the Eastern European communities so many Jews lived in, bagels came to be known as primarily Jewish. Over the course of the 20th century, bagels followed the pattern of so many other ethnic foods still superficially "Jewish" -- they got softer and sweeter as they successfully moved out of New York's Lower East Side into the middle of the country and the mass market.

The mass-market bagel world, led most prominently but not exclusively by Lenders, left behind much of the real work. Hand shaping shifted to machine rolling; boiling was switched to the less time consuming steaming; bakeries opted out of stone ovens in favor of standard steel.

The results of all these "efficiencies" were the soft, round breads more akin to a sort of savory donut than the chewy, crusty, hand shaped, boiled ones that came over with my grandparents' generation. As Mr. Safire said, "The formerly chewy morsel that once had to be separated from the rest of its ring by a sharp jerk of the eater's head is now devoid of character -- half-baked, seeking to be all pastry to all men."

Bagels and a Better Tomorrow


The first written records of the bagel date to the year 1610. They showed up then in the community regulations of the Polish city of Krakow, which dictated that bagels were to be given as a gift to women after childbirth.

Back in medieval Poland, their round shape led to the belief that bagels had magical powers. Like the round loaves of challah we eat at Rosh Hashanah to symbolize a full and complete year to come, the round shape of the bagel was believed to bring good luck in childbirth and to symbolize long life. I'm happy to have any good luck charm I can get - it never hurts to knock on wood, and I don't mind carrying a bagel with me in my bag for good luck either.

Have a bagel and enjoy the day.


* -- This article originally listed the date of writing as 1908. This is the date of the incident -- it would not be written about until many years later. It also erroneously listed the title of Singer's memoir as The Trip from Warsaw to Radzymin -- in fact this is the name of the chapter of A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up In Warsaw from which this quote originated. Thanks to reader Popik for the correction.

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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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