The Bagel: A Holey Experience
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do not cast thy bagels upon the waters. If you do, you won’t be able to eat them.  – The Dorfman Archives

Why are bagels so popular? Have you ever stopped to wonder before taking one sumptuous bite into one of them, how that hole in the middle came to be? Well, wonder no more. Read on for some answers to some truly holey questions.

Many years ago, the Candid Camera television show traveled to rural areas in Maine and New Hampshire, asking passersby what they thought a bagel might be. Some of the answers were astonishing to me. After all, I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where bagel dreams are endlessly made and eaten along the Great and not so great White Way. One man thought it was part of the engine of a German sports car; another claimed it was a musical instrument. A housewife in Portland swore it was an extinct breed of sea bird that her grandparents had once warned her about. Of all the people interviewed, not even one thought the bagel was something edible. What a crying shame for such a delicious culinary icon!

For many people, bagels are as much a part of daily life as bread and butter. A 1993 survey determined that Americans were eating an average of one bagel every two weeks. Information was not broken down as to preferences for plain, onion, garlic, salt, sesame, sour dough, pumpernickel, whole wheat, apple, blueberry, spinach and last but not least, the cryptic "everything" variety. The survey did not touch upon two important aspects; the hole in the middle and the lesser known, ne’er do well step brother of the bagel, the bialy. Named for the Polish city of Bialystok, this chewy round yeast roll has a depression rather than a hole in the center and is sprinkled with chopped onions before baking. This seems much ado for a sibling who never even takes the time to call his parents. As far as the hole in the middle, doesn’t anyone ever wonder why it’s there and where the bagel came from in the first place? Well, read on and wonder no more.

According to legend, in 1683, a Viennese baker wanted to pay tribute to King Jan Sobieski of Poland, who had just saved the people of Austria from an onslaught of Turkish invaders. The king was a skilled horseman, and so the baker decided to shape the yeast dough into an uneven circle resembling a stirrup (or beugal). As the beugal’s popularity spread throughout Eastern Europe, the name evolved but the formula and tradition remained unchanged for three centuries. Cream cheese was developed and first introduced in the eighteenth century by the English Quakers in their settlements in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia, but it was not commercialized until 1872. In 1880, The Philadelphia Cream Cheese Company was started and changed the way bagels were consumed forever. Joseph and Isaac Breakstone produced their own brand of cream cheese in 1920 and it became a sensation with the New York Jewish community as well as a standard spread for bagels. Slathering bagels with cream cheese, no matter who is credited with having made the first slather, had to have been the greatest thing since sliced bread!

Just as cream cheese transformed the taste of the bagel, the immigration in the 1880s of thousands of European Jews diversified the urban immigrant population, particularly in New York and Chicago where most of them settled. They brought to this bustling New World their dreams for a better life and an unquenchable desire for the bagels of their homeland. Soon bagels became closely associated with these populations and it took many years (1980s) for them to roll their way into mainstream America as standard menu items. (Perhaps they were all selfishly being hoarded in case of earthquakes or recessions or other such culinary disasters.)

In 1907 a union just for bagel makers, known as the International Bakers’ Union, was formed, joining 300 bakers in a common goal. Only sons of union members could be apprenticed to learn the secrets of bagel making in order to safeguard the art. Perhaps some learned how to make the dough and body of the bagel, while others concentrated on just the hole. This way, no one knew the entire secret. This was probably a good thing, as no one could be trusted in those days.)

In New Haven, Connecticut around 1927, Harry Lender, from Lublin, Poland, opened a bakery, which sold bagels basically to just Jewish customers. It took a while for the bagel to become an icon of urban, northeastern eating and a key ingredient of the multi-ethnic mix that has become known as "New York deli." The immigrant neighbors of Eastern European Jewish bakers were among the first to discover the bagel and begin its transformation from a Jewish specialty into an American food. In 1962, when Harry’s sons, Sam, Murray and Marvin Lender took over the business, they went on to specialize in the flash frozen bagel which allowed Americans nationwide to enjoy this previously ethnic and urban food. Their automated plant was situated in West Haven, where frozen bagels were made, packaged and distributed. Little by little, bagels became more and more popular and in the 1960s, production skyrocketed as machines capable of producing 200 to 400 bagels per hour were popularized.

How are bagels actually made and why are they so very popular? High gluten flour, salt, brown sugar and malt blend with good old New York water (to quote Tasty Bagels.) The ingredients are then mixed in a spiral mixer, which whips the flour into fluffy soft bagel dough in 12-15 minutes. After mixing the dough, it is then placed on a proofing table by an experienced Bagel Roller (not to be confused with a Holy Roller, although it is easy to see how that could happen). The bagels are then placed in a kettle of boiling water, which produces the golden shine and maintains the center hole of the bagel. After boiling, they are placed in a trough of cold running water, which allows them to cool down for proper handling. Their popularity involves several factors. First and foremost is the ease of eating that they represent. They offer a greater degree of portability than toast and a more satisfying chew than ordinary sandwich bread. Their heartiness makes them more filling than a croissant and less fattening if eaten without any topping (about 200 calories).

However you make them and however you eat them, bagels are an almost religious experience. What, if not a bagel, confirms the existence of a just and loving God? What, if not the hole, makes one humble in the face of the wonders of the universe? Too much to contemplate at the moment? I understand completely for I am hungry too. How about a sourdough or an everything bagel to go? Or what about a ham and cheese or feta bagel to stay? Make a decision now and be a person. Time is of the essence and the old adage still applies:

"So many bagels, so little time."

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003