Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Part 2: Journey of the Bagel

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The Bagel’s Journey from Ancient Egypt to Almost Everywhere 

The basic roll-with-a-hole concept is centuries old. No surprise, really, as there’s a practical advantage to this design—it’s possible to thread such a roll on a stick or a string, facilitating transport. Even the ancient Egyptians had a bagel-like treat.

The evidence suggests that those of ancient Egypt and of the greater Mediterranean came in two types: the soft, sesame-studded variety, called bagela in Israel and other parts of the Middle East today, eaten plain or dipped in za’atar; and a pretzel-like crispy Syrian ka’ak flavored much like the taralli, a hard, round cracker that has been a snack for centuries in southern Italy. Neither is boiled, a distinguishing characteristic of Polish and American bagels.

Although the boiled and baked bagel was mentioned in the Talmud, the one we know comes from Krakow. The story goes that the Krakow bagel was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. The tale is completely speculative and perhaps even fictitious, but it is a piece of gastronomic lore that has endured throughout the ages. As the story goes, seventeenth- 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 (bagel-like 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 Ottoman invaders, a baker supposedly made a roll in the shape of the king’s stirrup and called it a beugel (the Austrian word for “stirrup”).

The bagel has endured through the centuries not only because of its heroic legend, but because it lasted longer than freshly baked bread. Boiling gave the roll an outer sheen and a crunchy, protective crust.

Now here comes some new lore: I heard a theory about the crunch of bagels from a member of the Beigel family, who, until the Holocaust, were for many generations bakers in Krakow and thus, as they baked bagels, took the last name Beigel when Jews got last names in Krakow in about 1821. The theory is that Jewish merchants from Krakow who traveled the countryside to sell their wares in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and possibly earlier—needed to take food with them to keep kosher on the road. According to Jewish law, eating bread at a meal requires a ritual washing of hands and a blessing over the food before eating. But in the countryside, it was difficult because of the risk of contracting typhus from impure water. The Beigel family, aware of this predicament, ingeniously decided to first boil the dough and then bake it, thus putting it in the category of noodles and enabling the merchants to eat without washing. Eventually, though, the Arukh ha Shulhan (the Law of the Table), written in 1903, disputed this ruling by saying, “In Talmudic times there was blanched bread, they would blanch the dough in scalding water then bake it in the oven. This is considered true bread, the proper blessing over it is Hamoitzie and the extended Grace-after-meal following it. Nowadays the igulim (circular bagels) are as well blanched in scalding water [prior to baking] and are considered true bread.” But people liked the shiny texture of the bagel, so the tradition of boiling and baking stuck.

It is unclear when the first bagels made their way to the United States, but seventy bakeries existed on the Lower East Side of New York by 1900. In 1907 the International Beigel Bakers’ Union was created and from then on monopolized bagel production in New York City. What is also certain is that immigrants from eastern Europe, with their cravings for the foods of the old country, sparked the New York bagel craze. Today, bagels are almost everywhere . . . in the world.

—Joan Nathan

Excerpted from King Solomon’s Table by Joan Nathan. Copyright © 2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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