So for those who don’t know: A bagel is round, has a hole (no, it’s not a donut), and is made from a leavened dough that’s boiled and then baked in a very hot oven. Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, all of the seeds, or none at all, will cover it. Some individuals also say that blueberry bagels are a valid flavor, but those individuals are clearly incorrect.
Maria Balinska’s lively and well-researched book, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, answers the question above, the origins of the chewy dough.
Where was the world’s first bagel born? The famous legend that it was invented in 1683 as a stirrup-shaped homage to the Polish King Jan Sobieski, who saved Vienna from the Turkish invasion, is discounted by Balinska. Good tale, but in written records from Krakow as early as 1610, bagels are mentioned, and a similar-looking Polish bread called obwarzanek dates back to 1394. Ring-shaped breads also have a long tradition in other countries: taralli and ciambelle in Italy, and girde in China.
The evidence indicates that the first hole rolls, those of ancient Egypt and the greater Mediterranean, came in two forms: the light, sesame-studded variety known today in Israel as bagele, eaten plain or dipped in za’atar (a spice mixture of wild oregano, sesame seeds, and salt); and the pretzel-like, crispy Syrian ka’ak flavoured like taralli. Neither, a defining attribute of American bagels, is boiled.
Balinska, Polish-born and half-Jewish, tells the story of the Krakow bagel, a product of the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Though the story is largely speculative and maybe even imaginary, it has survived throughout the centuries as a piece of gastronomic mythology.
As the story goes, Poland was the breadbasket of Europe in the 17th century, and King Jan Sobieski was the first king not to affirm the decree of 1496 restricting the production of white bread and obwarzanek to the Krakow bakers guild (bagellike rolls whose name derives from a word meaning “to parboil”). This meant that within the limits of the town walls, Jews could actually bake bread. In addition, a baker made a roll in the form of the king’s stirrup when Sobieski saved Austria from the Turkish invaders, and called it a beugel (the Austrian word for stirrup).
But it was not only because of its heroic legend that the bagel endured through the centuries. As the boiling gave the roll an outer sheen and a crunchy, protective crust, it also had the benefit of lasting longer than freshly baked bread. As Balinska points out it was dunked in hot liquid to soften it if it had been slightly stale. Once bagels became common in Krakow, due to the strictness of Jewish dietary rules, Jewish bakers started making them in their own bakeries.
Bagels arrived in the United States with late 19th-century Eastern European immigrants, but did not break into the mainstream from their predominantly Jewish niche markets until the 1970s. That was the era when “ethnic food” became popular, and it was also when the Lenders started selling their frozen bagels brand, “the Jewish English muffin,” they called it to the masses through witty television advertisements.
Lender’s Bagels sold so well in 1984 that Kraft Foods bought the company, which was a delightful marketing opportunity (Kraft makes Philadelphia cream cheese, so the merger complete with a mock ceremony between a tubby “bride” named Phyl and an eight-foot bagel named Len). By the mid-’90s, in America, bagels became a multibillion-dollar business. We’re all hooked despite our best attempts at low-carb diets (though our love for frozen bagels has, well, cooled).
Think about the history when you chew on one.
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