The Bagel: The Surprising History of The Modest Bread, by Maria Balinska
“People used to laugh at me when I told them I was writing a book about bagels,” said Maria Balinska. But to the journalist, what spurred her on to write about the bread “was actually quite serious”. It all began when she discovered a bagel equivalent – the bajgiel or obwarzanek in Krakow, Poland. She was intrigued by how the obwarzanek had a striking resemblance to the bagel, both in its taste and texture. As she dived deep into her investigations she realised that her own family history, which is part Jewish, was connected to this modest bread.
Balinska’s book, The Bagel: The Surprising History of The Modern Bread, uses the bagel as “a way of viewing Polish-Jewish history”, says The New York Times. How the bagel has come to be associated with Jews can be traced back to a long history which involves several countries.
The origin of the bagel has been widely debated, with most historians concluding Poland as its country of origin. Legend has it that in the late 17th century, the bagel was produced as a tribute to Polish King John III Sobieski, when he saved Austria from an onslaught by Turkish invaders in the Battle of Vienna. The Polish King was known to have a love for horses. Hence, in gratitude, a local baker shaped his dough into the shape of a stirrup and called it beugel.
However, Balinska’s research traces the roots of the bagel to as early as ninth century Roman empire. The connection between the Polish king and bagel is, therefore, deemed to be “entirely fictitious”, writes Balinska. She argues there was written evidence of the bagel’s existence in Krakow, Poland as early as 1610, which is seventy-three years prior to the battle.
As linguist Leo Rosten’s studies have discovered, the first mention of the word “bagel” found in print was in 1610 in the Community Regulations of Krakow, Poland. One of the many regulations formulated by the Jewish council of Krakow includes one for bagels, which says that the bagel was to be given as a gift to any woman of childbirth.
Balinska takes us to Italy, home of a ring-shaped bread called taralli. Besides having a chewy texture like the bagel, taralli also needs to be boiled before baking. Balinska then takes us to China, where a bread called girde is found. Girde has a similar consistency and appearance with both the bagel and the taralli. “The bagel, in other words, may have family,” says Balinska.
The bagel’s connection to taralli has something to do with the Romans’ buccellatum in the ninth century. As buccellatum was a staple for the soldiers of the Roman Empire, Balinska believes it could have traveled with them across Europe and around the Mediterranean. The Romans might have imparted their skill of baking the buccellatum to the Italians, who then created their version of taralli.
The second possibility could be the Arab kak, also inspired by the Roman buccellatum. Arab kak shares some resemblance to the Roman’s buccellatum, such as its shape and how it is made to last for months. “It also probably accompanied Arab traders to the busy Puglian port of Bari,” writes Balinska.
Bari was a key location not just for trading, but also a meeting point for Christian pilgrims, Jewish scholars, and traders. Moreover, Puglia was a Jewish stronghold during the ninth century. Traces of Jewish beliefs and practices “are to be discerned… in Southern Italy,” says historian Cecil Roth. Many of the local customs practiced in Puglia are still attributed to Jewish influence. For many centuries, the Jewish and non-Jewish intermingle in Puglia. Food historians do not discount the fact that Jewish bakers could also have come to be making and eating taralli in the course of it.
What about bagel’s connection to the Chinese girde? Balinska thinks it might have something to do the Silk Road which, just like Port Bari, was a place for trade.“What is clear is that the bagel has a host of possible ancestors – most of them non-Jewish”
Balinska then takes us to Germany, the country she believes could be the reason for Poland’s obwarzanek, another bread that has a close resemblance to the bagel. “It is likely that obwarzanek reached Poland via Germany,” says Balinska. During the middle ages, skilled migrants began arriving in Poland, and by the fifteenth century, Krakow was known for its German-speaking burghers and artisans. In 1394, the first mention of obwarzanek is to be found in in the accounts of Polish royal household.
Hence, even though it has been known as Jewish bread, “what is clear is that the bagel has a host of possible ancestors – most of them non-Jewish,” writes Balinska.
In the late 19th century, the bagel arrived in America, together with Polish Jew immigrants, but it wasn’t until the 1970s when it became popular. Polish-Jewish baker Harry Lender arrived in America in 1927. As he was a skilled baker back home, his first job in America was at a bakery in New Jersey. Within a year, he managed to save enough to set up his own wholesale bagel bakery in New Haven, Connecticut. Compared to New Jersey, it was a smaller town where different ethnic communities intermingled more. This was when Lender realised that the bagel was just as popular with Irish and Italians. His business soon began to grow. In order to meet the demand of producing fresh bagels for his customers, he revolutionalised the bagel-baking industry by producing frozen bagels.
Then came the TV dinners in the 1950s. Its rising popularity created a demand for frozen food in the market. Somewhere in the 1960s, the Lenders took advantage of this and began selling frozen bagels to supermarkets. “So we went from freezing as a convenience to us to a marketing tool for the consumer”, says Marvin Lender, son of Harry Lender. By 1971, the Lenders made US$2.25 million from the sale of bagels.
More than just convenience, Lender’s Bagels promised their consumers the nutritional value of their bagels, with “NO PRESERVATIVES” prominently labeled on their freezer bag. The Good Breakfast Book, published in 1976, stressed the importance of eating ‘good’ bread and proposed a recipe for bagels. “All this was, of course, welcome grist to the Lender’s marketing mill”, writes Balinska.
By 1984, Lender’s Bagels registered $65 million worth of bagels sold. It attracted the attention of Kraft Foods, which bought over the bagel company in the same year.
The bagel has come to be known as the all-American bread, with New York and some say, Mattoon, a small town in Illinois, claiming to be the bagel capital of America. “Since 1986 Mattoon has been home to the biggest bagel factory in the world, capable of producing three million bagels every day”, says Balinska.The irony is, its roots didn’t begin in America. In the words of Balinska, the bagel is “an eloquent metaphor for the experience of Eastern European Jewry”.