Bagels: Why are they thought of as “Jewish” and how did they end up as housing for lox and cream cheese? Here’s the consensus of opinion along with some links that will tell you more … beginning with excerpts from my favorite of the group:
“After years of research on Jewish food in America, I thought I had discovered all there was to know about the bagel and its journey. But then I read Maria Balinska’s lively and well-researched book, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. Her book has filled in many of the questions I had about the bagel and raised new ones, too.
The basic roll-with-a-hole concept is centuries old [with] a practical advantage to this design”it’s possible to thread such a roll on a stick or a string, facilitating transport. Balinska identifies several possible candidates for the ur-bagel from around the world, including the taralli”hard, round crackers flavored with fennel that have been the local snack for centuries in Puglia, Italy … the Roman buccellatum and the Chinese girde … I came across Egyptian hieroglyphics at the Louvre in Paris, and among the depictions of daily life were rolls with a hole.
The evidence suggests that the first rolls with a hole, those of ancient Egypt and of the greater Mediterranean, came in two types: the soft, sesame-studded variety, called bagele in Israel today, eaten plain or dipped in za’atar (a spice combination of wild oregano, sesame seeds, and salt); and a pretzellike crispy Syrian ka’ak flavored much like taralli. Neither is boiled, a distinguishing characteristic of American bagels.
“… the Krakow bagel was a product of the 1683 Battle of Vienna. … it is a piece of gastronomic lore … 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 andobwarzanek (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.”
“… The bagel also had the advantage of lasting longer than freshly baked bread because the boiling gave the roll an outer sheen and a crunchy, protective crust. … if it got slightly stale, it was dunked in hot liquid to soften it. Once bagels became popular in Krakow, the Jewish bakers began making them in their own bakeries due to the strictness of Jewish dietary laws.”
It is unclear when the first bagels made their way to the United States, but 70 bakeries existed on the Lower East side 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. Balinska explains that the Jews of the Lower East Side created a demand for the breads of their homeland”rye, challah, and bagels.
The ’50s were a turning point … Jews were rapidly assimilating, moving to other parts of the city, expanding their culinary horizons, and sharing their own culinary traditions with the rest of New York. In the early 1950s, Family Circle included a recipe for bageles (their spelling). The copy read: “Stumped for the Hors d’oeuvres Ideas? Here’s a grand one from Fannie Engle. ‘Split these tender little triumphs in halves and then quarters. Spread with sweet butter and place a small slice of smoked salmon on each. … Engle, who later wrote The Jewish Festival Cookbook, did not mention the Jewish Sunday morning ritual of lox, bagel, and cream cheese”an American concoction that was just taking off, spurred on most probably by Joseph Kraft’s advertising blitz for Philadelphia Cream Cheese. It soon became an American alternative to the other Sunday trilogy of bacon, eggs, and toast. In 1951, the bagel made a big appearance in the Broadway comedy Bagel and Yox, introducing the word bagel into such mainstream magazines as Time. Balinska says that “one of the attractions of Bagel and Yox was the fact that freshly baked bagels and cream cheese were handed out to the audience during intermission.”
Lox according to Acme Smoked Fish Corporation:
“Lox and smoked salmon became Jewish through an accident of migration. When European immigrants came to New York, they brought traditions of smoking and salting fish. But the stuff did not take off until the arrival of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the United States, the opening of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 connected the waters of the Pacific Northwest, which were teeming with wild salmon, with New York fishmongers. Barrels filled with hundreds of pounds of salmon interleaved with salt were transported east. The salt drew water from the flesh of the fish, creating a briny bath that preserved the salmon for up to a year without refrigeration.
At the same time, the market for lox was exploding. Eastern European immigrants would have appreciated lox both for its price” 9 cents for a quarter-pound in the 1920’s and 30’s” and for its convenience. It was easy to handle” and pareve, making it acceptable with milk or meat. It fast became a staple.”
This phenomenon could be seen elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora: H. Forman & Son, the last of London’s traditional East End smokers, was founded in 1905 by a Jewish immigrant from Russia. And as the fish’s popularity grew, techniques for preparing it evolved rapidly.
“When they discovered there was fabulous wild salmon coming down to Billingsgate market every summer,” said Lance Forman, the fourth-generation proprietor, “they thought: `Well, no point in shipping them over. Let’s try smoking these instead.’ ” Thus was born the mild “London cure,” achieved by curing fillets with dry salt for 24 hours and cold-smoking them over oakwood for 24 more. This process is still followed at Forman’s, whose smoked wild Scottish salmon is sold at Fairway, Zabar’s and Dean & DeLuca.
PS: I have to tell you this bagel question came out of a conversation with my acupuncturist Bruce Mandelbaum, and my treatment ended with him Googling some of the links you’ll find in this post.