Do not cast thy bagels upon the waters. If you do, you wont 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, neer 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, doesnt anyone ever wonder why its 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 beugals 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.)