The Bagel: The Sur­pris­ing His­to­ry of a Mod­est Bread

Maria Balin­s­ka
  • Review
By – January 10, 2012
To recount the his­to­ry of the bagel is to roll the his­to­ry of Poland and Pol­ish Jews into one ring-shaped snack. In her delight­ful jour­ney through Pol­ish his­to­ry, Maria Balin­s­ka, an edi­tor for BBC Radio, begins the bagel’s sto­ry with the great Pol­ish king Jan Sobies­ki. Not only did he defeat the Turks at the gates of Vien­na in 1683, but he also allowed Jews, pre­vi­ous­ly barred from the guild of ring-shaped bread bak­ers, to make bagels. 

Made of wheat flour — high­ly prized in a region where rye flour dom­i­nat­ed — the bagel had rit­u­al and aris­to­crat­ic begin­nings in 17th cen­tu­ry Poland. In the 19th cen­tu­ry, wheat flour became increas­ing­ly avail­able, and Jew­ish bak­ers, impor­tant mem­bers of the urban Jew­ish work­ing class, pro­lif­er­at­ed, sell­ing bagels to Jews and non-Jews alike. 

Bagels came to the Unit­ed States with the great wave of immi­gra­tion. Bagel-mak­ing was a high­ly skilled hand­craft, but it was prac­ticed in filthy and dan­ger­ous cel­lars, lead­ing to calls for reform, to an all-pow­er­ful union, and even to mob involve­ment. In the 1960’s mod­ern­iza­tion— new ovens and final­ly a bagel-shap­ing machine — caught up with the bagel, start­ing the break­down of the union and of the bagel’s jour­ney to assim­i­la­tion. Bak­ing moved upstairs, and bagels were sold direct­ly to cus­tomers. Enter the Lender fam­i­ly, the freez­er, the toast­er, and fla­vored bagels. By the close of the 20th cen­tu­ry bagels were an Amer­i­can food. 

Food crit­ics and his­to­ri­ans may argue that the puffed-up Amer­i­can bagel — cin­na­mon raisin to onions, bears lit­tle resem­blance to the dense and chewy rings of East Europe, but it is now eat­en across the Unit­ed States. Maria Balinska’s his­to­ry brings the bagel full cir­cle from its home in Poland to its recent return as part of the New York break­fast” served in a ven­er­a­ble War­saw café — a sto­ry rich with sur­pris­ing infor­ma­tion and inci­dents. Illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions