Tuesday, April 24, 2018

"Water Doughnuts": Some Bagel History

"The Ba’al Shem Tov tries to impress on a simpleton the value of a bagel. It is of such worth, he says, that even a non-Jew will help you if you throw him a bagel."
--The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread by Maria Balinska (2008)

What is the origin of the bagel? When did it first come to the U.S.? During the last 100 years, what have been some of the highlights of the history of bagels? Maybe the most definitive history is The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread by Maria Balinska. Though small, the book contains plenty of fascinating information on the bagel's history, as well as dispelling some of the myths around the bagel's origins.

In addition, the book provides some information on the bagel's place in the U.S., primarily New York, during the 20th century. I wanted to add some additional information, which I've garnered from various newspaper archives, and that paint a fuller picture of the bagel's place in the U.S. Please note that my additions cover the time period of 1935-1974. Additional research is certainly warranted and I may expand upon this article in the future.

As a start, let's begin with a brief summary of the bagel's origins as provided by Ms. Balinksa. The first document that referenced a bagel was in Kraków in 1610, a sumptuary law concerning the celebrations surrounding the circumcision of a baby boy. Ms. Balinska also writes that, "Jewish documents and expert opinion concurs that the word bagel comes from the Yiddish beigen, to bend, which in turn is related to bouc, the word with the same meaning in Middle High German."

We can't be sure when the bagel first came to the U.S. but Balinska believes it was most likely during a large wave of Jewish immigration from 1881-1914. About the same time as a bagel tradition began in New York, one also began in Montreal, though both areas would eventually become known for their own different style of bagel. Today, both bagel styles have their own fervent advocates. For example, Joan Nathan, author of the King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking From Around The World, wrote that, "... a Montreal-style bagel--thinner and smaller, but with salt and less sweetness. This "new" style of bagel is what bagels uses to be like. The water may not be New York's, but I argue that the bagels as just as good, and maybe even better."

It is intriguing that in the U.S., bagels are commonly restricted to breakfast or brunch, especially on Sundays. During my search of newspaper archives from the 1930s-1970s, I found many references to lox and bagel brunches. I failed to see anyone hosting a bagel dinner. However, Baliska mentioned that back in Europe, "Bagels were popular tavern fare. Jewish immigrants to the United States recall parents making bagels to be served at the inn: ‘An onion, schnapps and a bagel’ would have been a typical order."

Have you ever seen an American bar or tavern that served bagels? Would you order a bagel with a cocktail, a glass of wine, or a beer? I am very curious as to why this tradition didn't carry over to the U.S. What occurred to transform this tavern fare into breakfast fare?

During my research, the first newspaper reference I located was in The Jewish Criterion (December 26, 1930), which mentions the Caplan Baking Company, in their 50th year of business. They bake items including bagel, rye bread, chaos, cakes, and matzos. The article continues to state that their products will now be available at Klein's Delicatessan and Restaurant.

The next newspaper reference I located was the Journal News (May 16, 1935--New York), a brief article about a lawsuit involving a bagel. The article stated, "A "bagel" was the bone of contention in County Court at New City this morning in a suit brought by Alexander Green of Spring Valley against Mager and Thorn, et al., a New York City baking firm. "Bagel" it developed, is a type of Jewish roll and Green sued for $3,000 for injuries alleged to have been received when he ate a bagel." Unfortunately, few details are provided and it didn't describe the nature of the injury. However, the article did mention that the defendants denied making the bagel and the parties eventually agreed to discontinue the case. This article does seems to indicate that non-Jewish readers weren't yet familiar with the bagel and needed an explanation of the term.

The next reference I found also involved a legal matter involving bagels. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (October 22, 1936) there was an article titled, Suspect Arraigned In Jewish Roll Theft. A man was charged with petty larceny, accused of stealing a dozen bagels every day for two weeks. the alleged thief was tracked down to a dairy store, where he was trying to sell the bagels. The article states a bagel is a "Jewish roll," which again seems to indicate non-Jewish people weren't familiar with the bagel at this time.

Most of the subsequent newspaper articles I found were from a single source, the Jewish Post, an Indianapolis newspaper. On July 9, 1937, they had an ad for Shapiro's Delicatessan, mentioning they carry "bagel rolls." There was another ad in the July 28, 1939 issue for the South Side Baking Co., detailing which stores carried their "Bagel." This usage seems to indicate that the plural form of bagel is simply bagel. Additional articles I found also supported this same bagel usage, choosing not to add an "s" to the end of the word.

The June 12, 1942 issue of Jewish Post discussed a buffet offered at a USO club, which was attended by a new army division, composed primarily of "Indians." One of them wanted a fish sandwich and was given lox on a bagel. He didn't know what lox was but must have enjoyed it as he came back the next day for more lox.

On November 8, 1946, the Jewish Post reported the local bagel bakers were on strike, but no details were given. Ms. Baliska wrote about the New York Bagel Bakers Union, Local 338 of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers’ International, which was founded in 1937 and dominated bagel production until the late 1960s. As she wrote, "The 1950s would see the high point in the union’s fortunes, an extraordinary time when it was impossible to sell a bagel in New York City without their say-so."

Bagels were available in other parts of the country too, such as in Miami during the 1940s. The Jewish Post (February 14, 1947), in an article on Jewish life in Miami, wrote, "Why not enjoy your “lox,” and you might even try it with "bagel.”

A new Jewish cookbook was highlighted in the Jewish Post (January 20, 1950). Jewish Cookery, by Leah W. IV. Pearlroth Leonard (previously the food columnist for The Post), is a 500 page tome, broken down into 35 chapters. The article states, "Mrs. Leonard, in her chapter on bread, writes sadly of the fast-disappearing art of bagel-making in America. She includes a recipe for these water doughnuts, which she insists are typically Jewish as gefilte fish "exacted from a retired baker, who learned the art in Europe and practiced it in one of our large cities for more than 40 years.” She tested it successfully, in spite of the baker’s warning that it could not possibly be done at home. Get a copy of "Jewish Cookery,” and bake yourself a batch of bagel." First, I love the description of bagels as "water doughnuts." Second, home cooks once made bagels at home? Do you know anyone who makes their own bagels? This article wouldn't be the only one to raise the issue of making bagels at home.

I hadn't previously heard of a difference between Western and Eastern bagels. The Jewish Post (March 23, 1951) though reported on them, "The difference between Western bagels and Eastern bagels caused a minor crisis on the set of Warner Bros. 'Tomorrow is Another Day.' Director Felix Feist discovered that the bagel-peddlers cart in a New York street was loaded with Western-type bagels--i.e. small and donut shaped. He insisted on the Eastern type--i.e. larger and pretzel shaped. The property master finally hustled up some of the Eastern bagels from a delicatessen on Los Angeles' Brooklyn Avenue."

Returning to the subject of bagel strikes, the Breckenridge American (December 27, 1953) reported on a strike by 45 truck drivers, who delivered bagels to restaurants and neighborhood stores, which lasted for about 32 days. A settlement was eventually reached so the bagel famine ended. This story was also reported in a California newspaper and they needed to write a follow-up article to explain the nature of the bagel.

In a sports column of the Madera Daily News Tribune (December 31, 1953), they published an article titled, "Bagel is Explained." One of their readers wanted an explanation of the bagel and the article stated, "A bagel has been jocularly, but nevertheless somewhat accurately, described as a hardboiled doughnut. But unlike the doughnut it is (1) not sweet (2) not fried, but baked (3) not soft. About all it shares with the doughnut is its shape." The article continues, "It is a breakfast favorite of many a New Yorker, particularly those who have been exposed to the eating habits of the Yiddish population of the city; for a breakfast of lox (smoked salmon), cream cheese, and half-and-half (weak coffee halved with cream) is very often favored by Jewish folk." And it also states, "Dipped in coffee, its lobster-like outer shell becomes amenable to the dental onslaught of its devourer. Smeared with sweet-butter, after having been sliced across, it becomes a rare delicacy; garnished with fresh cream cheese, it is a delight; and if the salt, sweet flavor of smoked salmon is added (as the famous Lindy's restaurant serves it) the bagel becomes the center around which a whole breakfast may be built."

Why would a bagel article be presented in a sports column? The article address that question, "Many an earnest eastern lad grappling with the lower rungs of the ladder to fistic prominence has subsisted almost entirely on the bagel. Like Benjamin Franklin’s two-penny rolls, the bagel is a classic, inexpensive way to fill the void beneath the manly chest." The answer continues, "But the bagel for a long time was the stuff of which fighters were made ... at least in the early mornings of the early days of their careers." Boxing and bagels!

Did you ever hear about canned bagels? In The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (December 29, 1954), there is an article highlighting Israel Hershman, the owner of the Coney Island Bagel Bakery, who is supposed to be a master at creating bagels. As the article states, "Bagels, allow me to instruct you, are created, not manufactured. Each one is fashioned by the touch of a skilled hand."  Hershman creates some bagels which will be canned, something new in bagel packaging. The bagels need to be created at the proper size so they fit within the can. Hershman has shipped these canned bagels to places including Rome and Israel. Who would have thought?

Bagel Pizza? The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (February 11, 1955) had an advertisement for Max's 21 Restaurant & Delicatessen which mentions "Max's First Bagel Pizza" though no further description is provided.

Another edition of that same newspaper, the Ohio Jewish Chronicle (November 11, 1955), has a different advertisement for the Berkman-Yellen Bagelry. The ad mentions the variety of different bagels they sell, including rye, poppy seed, pumpernickel, cheese, onion, onion & poppy seed, and plain. This is the first mention I found of different flavors of bagels

A competing Bagel pizza? The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (June 22, 1956) presented an advertisement for Johnny's Pizza which also offers a Bagel Pizza, in 9 varieties. Again though, there are no further details.

The Jewish Post (February 1, 1957) returned to the idea of making bagels at home, providing a complete recipe for the home cook. The ingredients list included: 3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 3 tblsps. for kneading board; 1 1/2 tsps. salt; 2 tblsps. sugar; 1 pkg. yeast; 2/3 cup warm water; 3 tblsps. oil or shortening; 1 egg; and 4 quarts boiling water, to which add 2 tblsps. sugar. The instructions include boiling and baking the bagel.

There are additional references to various bagel types such as the Jewish Post (February 14, 1958) which had an advertisement for a New York deli which sold a "New York Water and Pumpernickel Bagel." Ms. Baliska also mentioned in her book that during the mid-1950s, you could find Cinnamon Raisin and Onion bagels.

Technology surfaced to make bagel-slicing more sage. The Jewish Post (June 20, 1958) reported on a new bagel holder, created by a Miami plastics company. The article states, "The instrument has six sharp teeth on each side, to hold bagel firmly, and its use insures equal bagel halves for toasting,..." Now, you'll hear some people say you should never toast a bagel but prior to the 1960s, toasting bagels was very common, even in New York. Why was that so?

Prior to the 1960s, Ms. Balinska wrote that "...the cellar bakeries had sold their bagels wholesale to delicatessens, supermarkets and other bakeries." So, when a customer purchased a bagel, it wasn't fresh and hot out of the oven. Thus, toasting the bagel was common. However, as the 1960s began, technology began to change the nature of bagel bakeries, bringing them out of the cellars and onto street level. As she wrote, "For the bakery ‘bosses’ of the Bagel Bakers’ Association, the arrival of operations at street level was a business revelation. Consumers paid more than the retailer and could not get enough of the freshly baked hot bagel, something which had not been available in the days of wholesale. Blinking neon ‘HOT BAGELS’ signs were soon gracing the store windows of bakeries across the city." Nowadays, people may take for granted being able to buy a fresh, hot bagel but that wasn't always the case.

Another bagel strike struck in February 1962. The Jewish Post (February 16, 1962) reported that 289 bagel bakers in New Jersey and New York went on strike, affecting 85% of New York City's bagel supply. The union wanted three week’s vacation with pay instead of two, fourteen holidays a year instead of eleven and wage increases.

The F&M College Reporter (April 3, 1964--Illinois) perpetuated some of the common myths about the origins of bagels, stating they were invented in Vienna around 1683, a claim Ms. Balinska thoroughly refutes. The article goes into length concerning out bagel issues. For example, it states, "To the purist, there is only one true bagel. It is handmade from white wheat gluten flour, salt water, malt, and and yeast, and simmered in hot water for two minutes before it is baked. A few flakes of onion or garlic are grudgingly permitted as a sign of the times, but other varieties of the Bagel are considered rolls with holes in them and not Bagels." The article continues on the number of bagel bakeries in NYC, "In New York City, 36 bakeries turn out nothing but Bagels at the rate of a quarter million per day and three times that many on the weekends when 60% of all Bagel are sold."

More information on the bagel's origins are found in the Jewish Post (July 3, 1964), especially concerning the term itself. "There is no Word in the German language Corresponding to the Yiddish word “baigle.” The root "baign” is derived from the German (to bend or to bow) in Yiddish "bogen.” But the formation "baigle” is purely Yiddish — which shows, of course, that Yiddish is a language by its own right and not a mere corrupted German. "Baigle” or "beigel” is the root “baign” or "beign” with the diminutive ending "1.” In German, if there were such a word, it would be "boegelein.” But there isn’t."

A differing view comes from the Jewish Post (July 24, 1964), where is it mentioned that, "The bagel originally came from the province of Silesia where it was known as a "bcugel.” The Jews in their migrations picked it up, adopted it and carried it with them as they moved eastward."

The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (September 17, 1965) published an article, mentioning how bagels were becoming more mainstream, and not just a Jewish delicacy. In 1964, Americans spent $15 Million for about 225 Million bagels. It is also noted that New York and its environs has 36 bagel bakeries, turning out about one million bagels weekly. There are 14 other bagel bakeries around the country, though their location is not mentioned. In addition, the article mentions some of the bagel types that are now available, including onion, egg, pumpernickel, whole wheat, raisin, and poppyseed.

By the middle of the 1960s, bagel variety was spreading. The Jewish Post (November 5, 1965) noted that you could now buy frozen or even canned bagels. Plus, bagels came in several different varieties rather than just the traditional white and pumpernickel bagels. The article also included a number of bagel recipes from the "... home economics department of the country’s largest bakers of bagels, the New York Bagel Bakery,..." The recipes included Toasted Bagel Cheesies, Hamburgels (burger on a bagel), Sunshine Bagels, Cinnamon Circles, and Piquant Salmon Broil. Did you know that bagel burgers extended back this far?

More variety is addressed in the Jewish Post (March 17, 1967), as it reported that, "In honor of St. Patrick’s day, Lender’s Bagel Bakery here baked bagels that were green. The package of frozen green bagel bore the slogan, ‘‘Erin go bragh, shalom” on the bag." This might have been the first time that Lender's made these green bagels, though it wouldn't be the last time.

Though Miami had bagel bakeries for many years, the Jewish Post (February 9, 1968) reported that Atlanta, Georgia, finally opened a "bagel factory," the only one in the southeast, outside of Miami.

Ever hear of bagels being referred to as "Bulls?" In The Bronxville Review Press & Reporter (March 6, 1969), there was a supermarket advertisement that stated, "Large JUMBO, handmade Bagels are called “Bulls" by New York’s Bagel Makers." The term "bulls" appears to be uncommon nowadays so most people are probably unaware of it.

The Desert Sun (January 19, 1970) provided a recipe for a Pizza Bagel, "Take a frozen bagel; split it, butter it and top with a slice of mozzarella cheese, 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce, oregano, and a dot of butter. Broil 5 to 8 minutes, serve and eat and ciao!"

A return to the Bagel Burger. In Synapse - The UCSF Student Newspaper (October 30, 1970), there was a restaurant advertisement, "FERDINAND'S Home of the BAGEL BURGER!!. 1/4 pound freshly-ground chuck char-broiled to perfection. Served with melted cheese on a genuine New York water bagel, topped with a ripe cherry tomato and complimented with favorite garnishes. All this and your choice of salad or fries for only 85c!" It is interesting that this California restaurant was buying New York bagels for this sandwich.

More recipes for home cooks to make bagels also returned. In three issues of the Jewish Post (December 11, 1970), (December 25, 1970) and (January 15, 1971), they provided various recipes to make bagels at home, apparently spurred on my requests from their readers for such recipes. the Daily Illini (November 6, 1971) also offered their own version of a bagel recipe. In addition, the Desert Sun (January 16, 1974) provided a recipe to make Beer Bagels, though the recipe didn't specify any particular type of beer. Do any of you remember family members making their own bagels at home during the 1970s?

What a wild ride through the history of water doughnuts!

"In fact, women both sold and baked bagels: the bagel oven was also known as the vayberisher oyvn, or wives’ oven. It was an accepted way of making a living for women,.."
--The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread by Maria Balinska (2008)

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