Nothing in my experience across all cultures is more unifying than food. And long after many of the other customs of Judaism have faded from individual practice, you will find people are nostalgic about their Jewish food, of what they once ate at their grandmother’s house.
So I have studied Jewish food and shared the ideas and findings with audiences around the world, and people really seem to connect. With that let’s talk about bagels or is it beigels? See already we are in a Jewish discussion!
We think of them as being ubiquitous – who doesn’t know what a bagel is? It’s hard to imagine, but less than 100 years ago bagels were unknown outside of Jewish Ashkenazi circles.
As late as 1956 the New York Times times tried to explain the bagel as ‘A Form of Jewish baked goods sometimes described as a doughnut with rigor mortis, will not disappear from New York tables.’
It is not the shape that is unique in the bagel, ring-shaped pastries and bread are found throughout many cultures dating back thousands of years, what is unique in a bagel is that it is boiled before it is baked. The boiling step is what produces the characteristic crisp crust and chewy inside that we love in a bagel. On a chemical level, the boiling kills the yeast on the surface of the bagel and restricts it from rising during the baking. We will talk about the ring shape a bit more later. But if you think about it, the bagel is definitely related to the older medieval pretzel, that underwent the same boiling before the baking process.
The first mention of the bagel is in 1610 in the records of the Jewish community in Krakow. It states that a bagel is an appropriate gift for a woman about to give birth and for the midwives.
But logic would have the bagel appear on the Jewish table far earlier. There seems to be some kind of dictate in the 9th century in Germany that Jews are not allowed to bake commercially nor are they allowed to sell their baked goods to Gentiles. One of the many reasons Jews leave Germany and make their way East to Poland starting in the 11th century. In 1264 we hear of an odd statement by the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious, stating that ‘Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians’ meaning that prior to this it was prohibited. This was such a radical step that a Polish Bishop in 1267 forbade Christians from buying foodstuff from Jews – hinting strongly that they contained poison for the unsuspecting Gentile.
The theory has it that before the leniencies granted by Prince Boleslaw the Pious, Jews found a loophole, bread that was boiled first and then baked could be handled by Jews and sold to the Gentiles, maybe necessity is the mother of the invention of the bagel?
By the time we hear of the bagel, in 1610, it is already a commonplace food among the Jews of Poland and the Baltic States. But they didn’t seem to travel far beyond Germany or Russia. The original bagel was smaller and thinner – culinary Jewish historian Gil Marks describes it as ‘more hole, less bread’ than the modern bagel.
Unlike most of the bread in Europe such as rye bread that was commonly produced in bakeries by professionals, the bagel was typically prepared in modest homes by women and then sold from baskets or poles on street corners by the children or husband. Officials in Poland on occasion tried licensing the selling of bagels, but most peddlers ignored them, frequently at the risk of forfeiting their bagels to the hungry police.
Onto the shape – it was eminently practical if you wanted to sell a bagel from a dowel, or from a string around your neck. In the Brick Lane district and the surrounding area of London, England, bagels (locally spelled “beigels”) have been sold since the middle of the 19th century. They were often displayed in the windows of bakeries on vertical wooden dowels, up to a meter in length, or on racks. But like anything Jewish with time it came to be imbued with meaning and its circular shape with no beginning or end, making it the ideal food for life cycle events, such as births, circumcisions and post-funeral gatherings. But despite its significance, a bagel has always been an everyday food. Working men and school children ate them on the go, plain or at most with a schmear of butter or shmaltz.
In the 1880s when Jews began to arrive in England and the US in great numbers they brought with them the bagels. Now the peddlers went from the street corners of Polish cities to Petticoat lane and the Lower East Side of New York. But the west offered new possibilities, more space, and cheaper fuel. And bagel bakeries started appearing in both London and New York.
In New York, by 1907 there were 300 bagel bakeries. The bakeries banded together to create a Union. The group was so exclusive that membership was passed down father to son. Recipes and techniques were zealously guarded family secrets.
Now from one woman making bagels in her kitchen, we had teams of four men making bagels in bakeries, two meant to shape, one to boil, and one to bake. But don’t get too many grand ideas, these bakeries were no more than cramped cellars and workers were paid per piece, an experienced team could churn out 6,400 bagels in one night shift.
As the Jewish immigrants became more established, bagels went from an everyday staple to a Sunday morning treat. And the advent of the bagel toppings, started, from a poppy seed to dried onions and of course the everything bagel.
In the 1930s the stylish Sunday morning breakfast was Eggs benedict, but Jews did eggs benedict their own way, they substituted the smoked salmon for ham, cream cheese for hollandaise, and a bagel for the muffin and got rid of the egg altogether, and a Jewish classic was born – ‘cream cheese and lox’.
So, how do you eat your bagel, or is it beigel?