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Bagels Weren't Always Soft

The earliest versions of the classic carb circles might have been more like hard pretzels, and entirely unsliceable.

Bagels in a display case
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Today it’s a breakfast staple, but as recently as 1960, The New York Times had to define it for readers—as “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.” That’s right, this episode is all about the bagel, that shiny, ring-shaped, surprisingly dense bread that makes the perfect platform for cream cheese and lox. Where did it come from? Can you get a decent bagel outside New York City? And what does it have in common with the folding ping-pong table? Come get your hot, fresh bagel science and history here!

Though the bagel is most closely associated with the American Jewish community, its actual origins in eastern Europe have become the stuff of myth. Competing tales offer explanations as to how, as early as the 1600s, Jews in Poland came to relish the bagel at childbirths, celebrations, and funerals. But according to Maria Balinska, the author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, it’s likely descended from a German communion bread. This communion bread was large and ring-shaped; it was baked in monasteries and shared among the congregation. “My theory is that basically what you have is a family tree,” Balinska told Gastropod. “One of the ancestors is the communion bread, and, from that, you have a descendant that becomes the pretzel, but you also have a descendant that becomes the bagel.”

Balinska’s theory makes even more sense when you learn that the original concept was a bagel that’s hard, like a pretzel. “You can’t slice it,” says Rabbi Jeff Marx, the author of an essay titled “Eating Up: The Origins of Bagels and Lox,” published as a chapter in Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the United States. “All you can do is break off a piece of the bagel and dip it either in schmaltz—chicken fat—or maybe a little bit of butter.”

So how did the bagel become soft and puffy, and how did it eventually meet its soulmates, cream cheese and lox? For those stories, Balinska and Marx bring us—along with the bagel—to New York City, where the bagel helped transform America, and was itself transformed in the process. Today, bagels are found in supermarkets across the land, but many aficionados swear that a truly great bagel can never be made outside the five boroughs, due to the magical qualities of the city’s municipal water supply. To uncover the truth, we meet Francisco Migoya, the head chef at Modernist Cuisine and the co-author of Modernist Bread, who shipped NYC tap water to his kitchen in Seattle to put that belief to the scientific test. For his results, plus bagel jokes, bagel ballet, and the bagel machine that took bagels mainstream, listen in now!

This post appears courtesy of  Gastropod.