I remember my first bagel well. It was onion, and it was a treat that our second-grade teacher, Deb Winn, brought in for the class to sample. Maybe that's why I still like a good onion bagel.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, bagels are ancient. There are records of ring-shaped bread from all over the world - Italy and China, for example - but when it comes to the real deal, one of the first officially recognized records of bagels is a recipe from Krakow in 1610.
There are so many recipes that are the product of war or strife or even simple bias, and the bagel is tied to the last. It's possible the first recipe was not from a Jewish baker (who knows?), but it is likely that bagels and Judaism became bound in tradition and history alike as a result of one of the many restrictions European countries often placed on Jewish people.
Ari Weinzweig wrote “The Secret History of Bagels” for The Atlantic in 2009. In her article, she highlights one of these restrictions. Of all things, in Poland Jewish people were banned from virtually any association with bread. This was due to Matthew 26:26 and the cultural connection Christians made between bread and Christ.
During a time known as The Noble's Democracy, nepotism and class issues apparently reigned supreme, but somehow Poland made huge strides toward certain equalities, including among the Jewish members of society. It was during this time that Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious (in 1264) made a rule allowing Jewish people to buy, sell and touch bread!
People back then got angry about everything, so of course there was a counter movement by religious authorities forbidding Christians from buying any food from Jewish vendors with propaganda about poison slipped in.
In spite of the negative reaction, baking bread, including bagels, became a sort of celebration or even revolution for Jewish business owners.
Of course, that was well before the invention of the bagel, but it is possible this new freedom paved the way for the bagel's invention, or at least its lasting association with Jewish populations.
Bagels didn't make much of an appearance in the United States until the 19th century, and even then it was mostly popular in Jewish markets only until the 1970s. Kitchenproject.com claims that to be part of the Bagel Bakers Union in New York required a bloodline descending from one of the group's 300 founding members. That likely didn't help them spread, but it certainly slowed down appropriation by others.
Bagels went really mainstream when Kraft Foods bought the popular Lender's Bagels company in 1984 and marketed them alongside its Philadelphia cream cheese. Traditionally minded bagel purists raged against Kraft's frozen bagels after the merger, but by 1999 William Safire in the New York Times' article “Essay: Bagels vs. Doughnuts” writes that bagels outsell doughnuts in modern markets. They have come a long way.
I don't know if any demographic or culture has as many historically important food traditions as the Jewish people, so I promise this won't be the last time I write about foods and Jewish history.
With optional french toast seasonings
- ½ cup lukewarm water
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 ½ tablespoons brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
- ½ tablespoon light oil
- 2 ¼ cups flour
- ½ tablespoons of salt
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Start by combining the water, active dry yeast and at least one teaspoon of sugar. Allow this to begin rising.
Mix together the remaining ingredients, starting by combining the dry ingredients and mixing them thoroughly, followed by the liquid ingredients, ending with the yeast water. Mix the dough until it all comes together and then put it on a lightly floured surface and knead it, adding flour if needed, until the dough is smooth and firm. Cover it with a towel and allow it to rest and rise until almost double in size.
Divide the dough into six even balls and form rings by carefully pushing your thumbs through and then stretching the dough to make a 2-inch hole in the center. Allow these to rise, uncovered, another 20 minutes.
Heat your oven to 425 degrees and boil a pot of water. Once the dough has risen, drop each ring into the water, being careful to cook them in batches so you don't overcrowd them. Boil them one minute before turning and boiling another minute, then place them on a greased baking sheet.
Bake the bagels for 15 minutes and then turn them over and bake another five minutes or until slightly golden on top.
- 1 stick softened sweet cream butter
- 1/8 cup whole milk
- 3 tablespoons maple syrup (or more as desired)
Combine all ingredients in a tall bowl or measuring cup and use an electric mixer to whip it into soft, fluffy peaks.