You’ve Come Along Way, Bagel

Posted on

It started out as a plain Jewish roll with a hole in the middle. Who knew it would take America by storm?

I grew up in Brooklyn, NY during the 1940’s; bagels were a Sunday morning breakfast tradition in my house. Dad used to leave the house at the crack of dawn and walk several blocks to the Bagel Bakery on Thirteenth Avenue. He’d arrive home with a large bag filled with a dozen warm ones, a package of cream cheese, and sliced lox- -a typical Sunday morning breakfast in a Jewish home.

We sat around the table, eating and discussing. Grandma would tell us about new people she had met and say, “I can tell they’re not Jewish – – they don’t know what a bagel is.” I didn’t think Grandma’s bagel-method of ethnic identification was accurate. But I was quite young then and ignorant about the bagel’s background. So, after all these years, I decided to test Grandma’s theory.

I contacted my non-Jewish friend in Burley, Idaho, and asked her, “Do you know what a bagel is and have you ever eaten one?” She said she first heard about them in 1955 but didn’t eat one until 1995, “when I worked at the beet dump. Someone showed me how she made sandwiches from bagels.”

I asked her if she knew that bagels used to be considered an ethnic food. No, she said, but if they were, she’d guess they were Italian.

It seems that Grandma’s “bagel-test” was spot-on at the time. If you weren’t Jewish, chances are you’d never heard of or eaten a bagel.

The early life of the bagel in America was associated with the Jews: bagel bakeries were owned by Jews, baked by Jews, and bought by Jews. But, the “Americanization” of the bagel would soon occur.

So, where did the bagel come from and how did it get to America? In her book, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Maria Balinska, Polish-born and half-Jewish, says the bagel came from her homeland; that the Cracow bagel was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna.

According to Balinska, Poland was the breadbasket of Europe. King Jan Sobieski was the first king not to confirm the decree of 1496 limiting the production of white bread and obwarzanek (bagel-like rolls) to the Crakow Bakers Guild. Thus, Polish Jews were now able to bake bread within the walls of the city. In addition, when Sobieski saved Austria from Turkish invaders, a baker made a roll in the shape of the king’s stirrup and called it a beugel (Austrian for stirrup).

No one knows if this is the real story. But, it seems to be accepted that the bagel originated in Cracow, Poland. My dad would be proud–Cracow was his home town.

The bagel arrived in the United States along with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century. Hundreds of small bagel bakeries opened in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Chicago; a big bagel business breakthrough was about to happen.

And what is a bagel without cream cheese which William Lawrence of Chester, NY invented and began distributing under the brand name, Philadelphia Cream Cheese in 1880. Two years later, Isaac and Joseph Breakstone opened a small dairy store on New York City’s Lower East Side, which was the beginning of the Breakstone Cheese Company. Kraft eventually acquired both companies.

After World War I, the immigrants who came to America started a union for bagel bakers, and in 1937, Local 338, The International Beigel Bakers Union of Greater New York and New Jersey was recognized as an autonomous local.

With the end of World War II and the end of the Holocaust, American Jews began to identify the bagel with the Old World and immigrant Jewish culture. As Jews migrated to California and Florida during the postwar years, the bagels and lox brunch became a Sunday morning ritual. There were platters of smoked salmon, cream cheese, butter, olives, radishes and slices of onion and tomato–Mom used to add pickled herring. “Bagels and lox Judaism” spread across the United States from coast to coast, and a new population of bagel-eaters began to emerge.

Up to the 1950’s, bagels were still little known outside of New York, Chicago, Florida and California. However, that changed when Harry Lender, a Polish immigrant, opened his own bakery in New Haven, Connecticut and called it the “New York Bagel Bakery.”

From 1955 to 1984, Lender packaged bagels in plastic bags, and shipped them frozen to groceries and supermarkets across the country. Frozen bagels were marketed primarily to non-Jews. In 1984, Kraft and then Kellogg acquired Lender’s Bagels and launched a national ad campaign. That shifted the bagel from an ethnic product to a nationally recognized commodity.

Bagel bakeries are now owned and patronized by individuals from various cultures. New flavors became popular to please our diverse population: sesame seed, poppy seed, rye, pumpernickel, the everything-bagel, and even the jalapeño bagel.

As a portable breakfast or lunch for the commuting crowd, topped with tuna, egg, chicken salad, or bacon and eggs, it has become a carrier for the meanings and values of our many cultures. For some, it remains an icon of East European Jewish culture. For others, unaware that the bagel started out as a Jewish ethnic food topped with cream cheese and lox, it’s typically New York, and yet, for others it’s all-American.

I like the Sunday breakfast tradition that Dad started so many years ago. Nothing is more welcoming than a table filled with a variety of bagels, platters of lox and cream cheese, along with all the trimmings, a big pot of hot coffee and good friends. I buy everything at my local bagel/deli shop in New Mexico. The owner is from Brooklyn, NY. I feel right at home.