Exploring the History of Bagels for National Bagel Day
Did you know that the 21st-century bagel you ate for breakfast had its roots in 15th-century Jewish kitchens in Poland? That’s right, the crusty, chewy bagels we enjoy today haven’t changed much from their original form all those centuries ago. Sure, toppings have changed over time, but the bagel itself is basically the same. Let’s explore some of the long and interesting history of bagels in honor of National Bagel Day (January 15th).
The Lineage of the Bagel
The known history of the bagel dates back 600 years ago to Medieval Poland. In reality, bagel-making is likely much older than that. The first written mention of the bagel occurs in the city regulations of Krakow, Poland in 1610. These regulations specified that women were to be given gifts of bagels after childbirth. The bagel’s circular shape supposedly symbolized a long life to come.
Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, speculates that bagels may have descended from the soft pretzels brought to Poland by German immigrants in the 14th century.
Those pretzels may have morphed into obwarzanek, a somewhat bagel-shaped roll. Written records from the 14th-century mention these feast day rolls that were popular with the nobility and the wealthy. Unfortunately, most of the population couldn’t afford these wheat-based treats and had to settle for cheaper coarse rye bread.
According to Ms. Balinska, another theory of the origins of bagels traces to a baker wanting to honor a king. It’s said that in 1683, a Viennese baker wanted to honor the king who led the successful effort to repulse an invading Turkish army. He made the bagel in the shape of a stirrup because of the king’s love of horses.
Whichever story of the origin of bagel is true, we’re the true beneficiaries!
The Jewish Connection
The anti-Semitic laws of Medieval Europe prohibited Jews from baking bread commercially. Poland was more tolerant than most other European countries and allowed Jews to bake dough that was first boiled. This is probably where bagels first developed that wonderful chewy texture and flavor. It came about as a result of boiling the dough before baking it.
When Jewish Poles and other Eastern Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their beloved bagels with them. It didn’t take long for bagels to catch on in popularity. They eventually made their way across the country, but the heart of bagel culture in the United States remains in New York City.
While other Americans may settle for packaged bagels, New Yorkers prefer their bagels fresh and hot out of the stone oven. They also prefer a bagel with ‘character’. That means a bagel that is hand-shaped, crusty, chewy, and a rich golden brown.
Unfortunately, mass-produced bagels have lost much of this character as they moved away from the ethnic neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side. They tend to be softer, with less of that characteristic ‘bite’. They also tend to be paler and sweeter than New York bagels.
Bagel making and eating are still evolving, with an ever-evolving variety of flours, sprinkles, dips, toppings, and smears. However, the bagel basics have remained the same. It’s still a chewy ring of deliciousness.
When you bite into a warm bagel, you’re getting a taste of history, culture, heritage, and tradition. Enjoy!