A Brief History of the Bagel

Since its origins, the bagel is a staple that’s inspired fierce loyalties

Bagel and Lox
A bagel with lox, a uniquely American combination. Flickr user Matthew Mendoza

Do you remember the first time you tasted a bagel? I don't. As a kid in the '80s and '90s, I chewed my way through thousands of those boiled-and-baked rings of bread dough. Fresh bagels from Bruegger's (a national chain that started small in Burlington, Vermont, my home turf, in 1983), frozen bagels, mini-bagels...our family wasn't terribly discriminating, I confess. We often bought bakery "day-olds" (foolish, since most connoisseurs will tell you a bagel goes stale within a few hours), and my dad still prefers microwaving to toasting—another form of bagel heresy. (According to him, 22 28 seconds is the perfect amount of time to warm up a large bagel in the microwave. That's the closest I've ever seen him come to cooking.*)

Now a new book by Maria Balinska titled "The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread" has made me realize that I narrowly avoided a horrifying fate: If I'd been born a few years earlier, I might have suffered a bagel-less childhood (at least in rural Vermont).

Where was the world's first bagel born? Balinska discounts the popular legend that it was invented in 1683 as a stirrup-shaped tribute to the Polish king Jan Sobieski, who saved the city of Vienna from Turkish conquest. Nice story, but bagels are mentioned in written records from Krakow as early as 1610, and a similar-looking Polish bread called obwarzanek dates back to 1394. Ring-shaped breads have a long history in other countries, too: Italy has taralli and ciambelle, and China has girde.

In the United States, bagels arrived with the Eastern European immigrants of the late 19th-century, but didn't emerge from their mostly Jewish niche markets into the mainstream until the 1970s. That was the era when "ethnic food" became trendy, and it was also when an enterprising family named the Lenders began marketing their brand of frozen bagels—"the Jewish English muffin," they called it—to the masses through witty television ads.

In 1984, Lender's Bagels were selling so well that Kraft Foods bought the company, which was a delicious marketing opportunity (Kraft makes Philadelphia cream cheese, so the merger "was billed as 'the wedding of the century,'" Balinska writes, complete with a mock ceremony between a tubby "bride" named Phyl and an eight-foot bagel named Len). By the mid-'90s, bagels were a multibillion-dollar industry in America. Despite our best efforts at low-carb diets, we're still addicted (though our love for frozen bagels has, well, cooled).

Bagel loyalties can run deep and fierce. Balinska describes the horror with which some New Yorkers greeted the advent of frozen bagels: "How can that be a bagel? A doughnut dipped in cement and then frozen?"

A truly good bagel, wrote one critic, should be "a fairly small, dense, gray, cool and chewy delight that gave jaw muscles a Sunday morning workout," not the pillowy monstrosities now preferred by "a public too lazy to chew."

Personally, I've become a bit of a bagel snob, after spending a year in Manhattan for grad school and discovering the joys of fresh, chewy bagels. My favorite ones come from the legendary H&H Bagels bakery on the West Side, which I was thrilled to discover are also available from at least one DC deli counter. I still get nostalgic and cave in to those squishy grocery-store bagels from time to time, but they really only taste good as a canvas for cream cheese.

What's your idea of a "real" bagel?

*"For the record, it's 28 seconds," my dad wrote to inform me after he spotted this post. Also, he takes issue with my comment that he never cooks -- he claims he once created a casserole called the Sugar Pops Tuna Wiggle. I can only presume my brain has tried to block out that traumatic memory.

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