Bagels were perhaps the most rare item to grace our family breakfasts, but when they did they were toasted, smeared with the traditional cream cheese and you licked the salt off your lips after every bite.
Gastronomic lore has not been as fascinated with the history of food as it has been with the bagel. Contextualised by almost 500 years of Polish-Jewish history, the story of the bagel is mostly speculative. There’s surprisingly little literature on the topic, the most recent being Maria Balinska’s The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. According to Balinska, there are no direct mentions of the bagel prior to 1610.
But roughly between 800—900, a ninth-century edict forbade Jews from baking. They circumvented this by boiling bread before toasting it—a process that is believed to have led to the creation of the bagel. Between then and the next documented appearance of the bagel, much of it lends itself to myth, the most famous of all being that the bagel was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. The Holy Roman Emperor fled Austria in the wake of battle but before doing so, petitioned Germany and Poland to come to Vienna’s aid. The myth goes to say an Austrian baker made a bread roll in honour of the victory and called it a beugel (the Austrian word for stirrup). Whether bagels resemble the bread product we know today is not known.
In 1496 a Polish edict was allegedly pushed by Krakow’s gentile bakers limiting the production of white bread and obwarzanek (bagel-like rolls) to the Krakow bakers guild. This meant that Jews were banned from selling bagels within the city limits. The next direct mention of bagels comes in 1610, where they were listed in the community regulations issued in Yiddish by Jewish Council of Krakow as a suitable gift for pregnant women. This notion of opulence isn’t an unfamiliar concept when it comes to the bagel. The idea has even amorphised itself into a Romanian saying: “Not every dog has a bagel on its tail,” meaning that not every street is lined with gold. Historically, bagels were considered a luxury due to their central ingredient, wheat.
The bagel found its way with Jewish immigrants to the United States by 1900, where many small bagel bakeries opened in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Handmade bagels were being made right up to mid-20th century and they were mostly popular among Jewish communities.
Onward from here, bagels become as common as muck. A post-war America prioritised quantity and economic prosperity over craft, and thus the bagel made its way into many homes around the state. Daniel Thompson is celebrated as the inventor of the bagel-making machine in 1958 and Murray Lender as the man who thought to freeze bagels. Lender’s father owned a wholesale bagel bakery in New York and began delivering thawed bagels to retailers in 1956. The appeal of the bagel can’t be understated: Lender’s revenue increased tenfold from $2.25m to $22m following the mass production. Other bakeries saw the profits and followed suit.
Nowadays the bagel is reminiscent of small comforts and the necessity of asceticism. That being said, New York City is home to the most expensive bagel at a mere $1000, topped with white truffle cream cheese and goji berry-infused Riesling jelly. Recently, the “Espresso Buzz Bagel,” containing 32mg of caffeine got a trial (for those counting, that’s approximately half of the amount of caffeine in an average-strength latte). But for those modest among us, there’s a 60-year-old bakery in Montreal called St-Viateur Bagel, a beacon for tradition proving that bagels have only become more popular over the century. From Krakow to New York City and onto the rest of the world, the miles and years the bagel has travelled are testament to its gastronomic craft.