The closing of the Upper West Side Manhattan location of H&H Bagels this summer caused a citywide uproar. Here at the Forward, however, we’re taking the long view. Why does the bagel inspire such affection? How did it become so popular? How, indeed, did it come about at all?
The bagel’s beginnings are shrouded in mystery. It might be related to the buccellatum, the boiled and baked ring of dough that Roman soldiers survived on as they tramped across Europe. Or to the pretzel, first baked in monasteries by German monks in the 11th century and later by Jewish bakers In the 13th century. Theories abound. Evidence of a family tree, alas, is hard to come by.
According to one folk tale, cited in Commentary magazine in May 1951, the bagel was born in 9th-century Prussia when Jews were forbidden to eat baked bread because of its Christian significance. Jews took the hint and went off to boil the dough — and then toast it just a little to produce a bagel.
These days, the world is truly “bagelized,” as Murray Lender might put it. You can get bagels in Des Moines, Beijing and Buenos Aires. Would your grandparents recognize them as the “cement doughnuts” of yesteryear? On the whole, no. Steaming instead of boiling, machine kneading, freezing, using flour preservatives — all these modern “advances” make a difference in the consistency of today’s bagel. The industrialization of the product has its upside: Thanks to wider awareness and passion for the bagel, there’s greater demand for a more artisanal product and some bagel shops are returning to traditional bagel-making techniques.
But how did we get to the bagel of today? To the right is a timeline that highlights significant developments in the history of the bagel over the past 600 years.
Maria Balinksa is the author of “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread” (2008) and the founding editor of www.latitudenews.com
Who makes the best bagel in New York City? Arthur Schwartz, Mimi Sheraton and other food experts weigh in on the Forward’s food blog, The Jew and the Carrot.