A common breakfast among commuters, bagels stand alone as the only bread that is boiled before it is baked, providing chewiness instead of brittle crumbs. Yeast dough is shaped into rings, allowed to rise, then briefly tossed into vigorously boiling water for a few seconds. Then it is baked, where the prior boiling creates a chewy texture. Those that like a bit of gloss on the crust can brush them with sugar water, the traditional method, or egg, a more modern method abhorred by purists.
The origin of the bagel is up for debate, although it seems to have early taken a foothold in Poland. The first printed mention occurs in Krakow, in 1610 in a list of community regulations that stipulate that bagels are to be given to pregnant women. (Interestingly, given the bagel’s association as a ‘Jewish’ food, there is no mention of religion in this regulation-apparently Christian women ate bagels as well). Others support the theory that an Austrian baker created a stirrup (or ‘beugal’) made out of dough to give to the King of Poland in 1683, in thanks for his help in defeating the Turks, and in honor of his great horsemanship. (Other German variations of the word are: ‘beigel’, meaning ‘ring’, and ‘bugel’, meaning bracelet.)
Despite being popular in Europe among the Jewish residents, it is in America that the bagel becomes widely popular, especially in Chicago and New York. The next bagel breakthrough came in 1872, with the making of cream cheese. In 1880, Philadelphia Cream Cheese was started, and in 1920, Breakstone Cream Cheese. In 1907, a union just for bagel bakers is formed, the International Bakers Union, joining together 300 bakers. Despite New York City’s claims for having the best bagels, residents of Montreal would disagree, citing their wood-fired ovens and honey flavored boiling water makes for a superior product.
Polish émigré Harry Lender opens up Lender’s Beigel Bakery in 1927 in West Haven, Connecticut. His primary customers are Jewish delicatessens in New York. His sons, Murray and Marvin take over the business as adults, and specialize in the flash-frozen bagel, allowing Americans nationwide to enjoy this previously ethnic and urban food. In 1984, having grown to 600 employees, they will be bought out by Kraft. H. Lender and Sons restaurants in Connecticut now receive the benefit of the true Lender’s bagel.
As the bread has spread across the nation, so have variations. Where once they were served plain, or in such traditions flavors as pumpernickel, onion, or sesame seed, they are now available as apple, blueberry, spinach, the very non-kosher ham and cheese, or the incomprehensible ‘everything’.
Why have they become so popular? Ease of eating, a greater degree of portability than toast, and a more satisfying chew than ordinary sandwich bread. Plain, they offer a non-sweet alternative to doughnuts (man, was I disappointed in my first bagel-what a terrible doughnut!) Their heartiness makes them more filling than a croissant, and without any type of topping (i.e. cream cheese, butter, or jelly), they are a reasonable 200 calories.