There are several conflicting stories about the origin of bagels. Many of them credit the Poles, who created the “bajgiel.” Germans claim the word “bagel” comes from the German word “bougel,” meaning “bracelet.” Others tell of a Viennese baker who created the bread in commemoration of the victory of the Polish King Jan III Sobieski over the Turks in 1683. The baker made the bread in the shape of a “buegel” or stirrup, because the liberated Austrians had clung to the king’s stirrups as he rode by.
However bagels originated, they made their way to the United States with Jewish immigrants. In the early 1900s in New York City the International Beigel Bakers Union was founded, and bagel-making, considered a skilled trade, was restricted to union members only.
Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, wrote:
“Every bagel that was made in New York City up until the 1960s was a union bagel — every one. The reason why this union was strong was that they were the only ones who knew how to make a proper bagel. And that was the keys to the kingdom.”
Then in the 1960’s Daniel Thompson invented an automated bagel-making machine; frozen bagels became a possibility; and the industry was transformed.
Still, there are standards. A “New York-style” bagel contains flour, water, salt, sugar (or honey or malt) and yeast. Out of all these ingredients, it is widely thought by bagel lovers that water is the key ingredient to great tasting bagels, and that it is the unique taste of tap water in New York City or Brooklyn that makes their bagels unique. Water not only is part of the recipe, but bagels are boiled in water for one to three minutes before they are baked.
Why are bagels boiled before they are baked? A book on the bagel by Maria Balinska offers an interesting theory. She believes it comes from a Polish decree in the 9th Century forbidding Jews to bake bread because of the connection between bread and the body of Jesus. But if the dough were boiled first and then baked, it no longer qualified as ‘bread” and could be made and eaten. You can read more about her theories here and here.
Joan Nathan, reviewing Balinksa’s book, reports hearing of another explanation from surviving members of the leading bagel-baking Beigel family of Krakow. They maintained:
“Jewish merchants from Krakow who traveled the countryside to sell their wares 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, that 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.”
Both theories lend great importance to the quality of the water. In fact, when third-generation bagel baker Steve Ross was invited to demonstrate bagel making at the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., he took all the ingredients in his grandfather’s recipe: — high-gluten flour, fresh yeast, salt, malt and 36 gallons of New York water. When the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) heard that Mr. Ross was running low, because he had “loaned” some to the pickle and herring purveyors, Russ & Daughters, DEP air lifted another 20 gallons to the Festival.
But NPR contends it is not the water per se, but the boiling:
“. . . while New York’s water does play a role in influencing bagel texture, the effect is actually pretty minor, according to the ACS [American Chemical Society]. Harder water toughens the gluten in the dough, while super soft water can make it goopy.
What’s far more critical is the boiling.”
You can even watch a video to explain it!
Interestingly, probably the main rival to New York for “best bagel” is the city of Montreal. There, they add honey to the water. Montreal bagels are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. [We stopped in Montreal on a recent trip to Canada just to check out the bagels. In our opinion, New York has the edge.] You can read more about Montreal bagels here.
You should also know that bagels have even made their way to outer space thanks to Canadian-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, who took a batch of 18 sesame seed bagels on his 2008 Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station. From where, you may well ask? Chamitoff’s aunt has a bakery in Montreal, and his bagels came from there. The UK Independent reported that Mona Chamitoff, owner of the Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery, said they were “very flattered” her nephew had decided to take the bagels with him into space, and they he had always loved the bagels and couldn’t imagine leaving Earth for six months without them.
How best to celebrate National Bagel Day? Pick up bagels of whatever style (but please not frozen!), some “Nova” lox, cream cheese, sliced tomatoes, maybe some sliced red onions, maybe some capers, maybe some white fish, and have a treat!