Save the Deli

The Bagel: A Cultural History

While I don’t normally go into the subject of bagels (bagels aren’t deli!), I feel like I need to pay the tasty round bread its due.

I’ve always loved bagels. More than any other Jewish food they are a no-brainer. Whether you prefer the massive New York style, the dense/chewy variety from Montrealer, the Toronto twisters, or even the goyish supermarket/cinnamon raisin variety, bagels are win win. They fill, they hold, they sustain, and they comfort. They’re good toasted or plain, with butter or cream cheese or stacked with all sorts of smoked fish, onions, tomato, capers, etc…

My personal favorite is a fresh sesame seed bagel hot from the wood fired oven at Montreal’s St. Viateur bakery. Others have their owns, but what’s important is that bagels are now a ubiquitous global bread, eaten around the world in a way that’s almost disconnected from other Jewish foods.

So it is of no small significance that the definitive cultural history of the bagel was recently published. The Bagel: A Cultural History is the work of British historian and journalist Maria Balinska, and it seeks to dispel many myths about bagel origins in the world.

Recently, the Jewish food maven Joan Nathan wrote about bagels on Slate, inspired as she was by Balinska’s book:

Polish-born and half-Jewish, Balinska, who works at the BBC in London, tells us that the boiled and baked bagel as we know it comes from her homeland. She tells the story of the Krakow bagel, which was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. Although the story is completely speculative and perhaps even fictitious, it is a piece of gastronomic lore that has endured throughout the ages. As the story goes, 17th-century Poland was the breadbasket of Europe, and King Jan Sobieski was the first king not to confirm the decree of 1496 limiting the production of white bread and obwarzanek (bagellike rolls whose name derives from a word meaning “to parboil”) to the Krakow bakers guild. This meant that Jews could finally bake bread within the confines of the city walls. Furthermore, when Sobieski saved Austria from the Turkish invaders, a baker made a roll in the shape of the king’s stirrup and called it a beugel (the Austrian word for stirrup). As Balinska says, “Whatever its origin, the story of the bagel being created in honor of Jan Sobieski and his victory in Vienna has endured.”

This is in line with what I heard in Krakow, where you can still buy hard, hand twisted bagels on the streets.

Definitely a book worth checking out. Grab a tub of cream cheese to go with this one.

3 Responses to “The Bagel: A Cultural History”

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