Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Water Doughnuts: Some Bagel History (Part 1)

"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. Because of the small size of her book, it couldn't be comprehensive so I want to add some additional information about the bagel. I've searched through various newspaper archives, looking through many thousands of bagel references, and can paint a fuller picture of the bagel's place in the U.S. More research is certainly warranted as well, and I may expand 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 wrote 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, I found many references to lox and bagel breakfasts and brunches. 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." Before Jews embraced bagel and lox, they might have paired bagels and alcohol in the U.S. too.

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?

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, by Gil Marks, offers a possible answer to this last question. "When during the 1930s, many Jews abstained from eating the then-stylish but unkosher American Sunday brunch classic, eggs Benedict, they substituted lox slices for the ham, a schmear of cream cheese for the hollandaise sauce, and a bagel for the English muffin. Thus was born an American classic. Neither lox nor cream cheese had ever touched a bagel in Europe." This raises the question then as to how Jews were eating bagels before the 1930s. Beer and bagels? Maybe.

While researching the history of bagels, I found many things which were utterly fascinating and I hope my readers find it equally as fascinating, and that they also gain a deeper appreciation for the bagel.

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food also claimed that the term "bagel" first appeared in an English-language American newspaper in 1932. However, I found nine articles that predate 1932, and suspect more might exist as well. 

The earliest newspaper reference I located was in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (IN), January 2, 1916, which noted, "..a bagel, which is a kind of pretzel." It continued, "The bagel was a fresh one, warm, just out of the oven."

The next newspaper reference I located was the Hartford Courant (CT), July 23, 1919, which began, "The bagel is as much an institution in Jewish bakeries as the Salvation Army donut was with the fighters in France, although it is safe to say it is not described in the encyclopedias, nor has it played a part in literature, past or contemporary." The article continued, "The bagel is similar to the doughnut in shape, but that's where the comparison ceases, for the bagel is just baked dough, not fried or cooked." It then noted, "Children on the East Side cry for bagel--which is both singular and plural--ask the baker." The article then ended, mentioning that someone had stolen 8-12 dozen bagel from a local bakery.

Then, in the Hartford Courant (CT), March 7, 1926, there was an article about a young basketball team. While traveling through Albany, the team only had $1 for food, so what could they buy to feed the team? Someone advised that they should purchase "bagels", which were described as "Sort of Jewish roll" and that "...you get lots of 'em and they last long."

The next article I found was in The Standard Union, May 4, 1928 (NY), which posted a humorous article,  in a funny accent, with the line, "...wan cupp kuffeh weet a coppleh bagels..." There was another brief mention in The Minneapolis Star, December 1, 1928, in an article discussing an annual food bazaar held at a synagogue. Mrs. I.D. Schulman was noted as being in charge of pies, strudel and bagel. Next, in the Austin American-Statesman, February 14, 1930 (TX), there was an advertisement for Aunt Betty's Bakery, which offered "Shobishhollie & Bagels--light and dark rye." Shobishhollie is Challah bread that is made specifically for the Shabbath.

The first more significant reference, as well as the first bagel recipe, is found in the Courier-News, March 21, 1930 (NJ) in an article of recipes for biscuits, muffins and rolls. The recipe was listed as "Bagel (Pretzel Roll)" and the ingredients included 1 cup scalded milk, 1/4 cup butter, 1 1/2 tablespoon sugar, 1 yeast cake, 1 egg (white), and 3 3/4 cup flour. The recipe gave instructions which included cooking the dough in near boiling water before they went into the oven. Do you know anyone who has made bagels at home? I don't.

The Jewish Criterion, December 26, 1930, discussed the Caplan Baking Company, which is in their 50th year of business. They bake items including bagel, rye bread, chaos, cakes, and matzos. The article also states that their products will now be available at Klein's Delicatessan and Restaurant.

How much did bagels cost during this time period? The Daily Journal, November 27, 1931 (NJ) had an advertisement for Freedman's Bakery which mentions "Water Bagel" for 24 cents a dozen. Two cents for a bagel! This is the first price for bagels that I found as well as the first reference to a "water bagel" though that term wasn't explained in the ad. A different price was listed in The Tampa Tribune, April 15, 1932, with a deli ad mentioning that a dozen bagels cost 18 cents.

Bagel sales could be contentious. The Daily News, March 3, 1932 (NY) published an article, Jewish Bagel Peddler Held In Trade Row, which stated, "An argument over the sale of bagels, a form of Jewish bread, yesterday led to a charge of felonious assault against one of the contestants." The fight occurred between a 63 year old man and a 70 year old man who encountered each other at about 2:15am. One of the men believed the other was infringing on his territory for bagel sales so he struck him in the head with a lead pipe. The injury wasn't too serious, only needing four stitches but the assailant was arrested.

The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, March 15, 1932 (PA) had an ad for Spitz's Kosher Delicatessen mentioning "Rye Bread, Poppy Seed Rolls or Bagel." The Wilkes-Barre Recorder, May 12, 1932 (PA) reported that The Real Rye Baking, Co. recently opened a retail store The owner mentioned that during the past several years, they "..have built up a fine patronage for our rye bread, rolls, bagels, twists, and pastries."

Another bagel recipe was provided in The Des Moines Register, June 19, 1932, in an article on Jewish recipes. The ingredients included one cake compressed yeast, 1/4 cup cold water, 3 cups warm water, 4 egg yolks, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, and 10 & 1/2 cups sifted flour. This recipe called for placing the dough in rapidly boiling water before being put in oven, a slight difference from the "near boiling water" of the previous recipe.

The Tampa Bay Times, December 7, 1932, had an ad for Green's Sunshine Delicatessen, which states they "handling a full line of European breads" and it includes "strudel and bagel."

During this time period, many people didn't know what a bagel was so some newspapers needed to explain what they were to their readers. The Billings Gazette, February 19, 1933 (Montana), in an article on bakeshops, mentioned that "The round doughnut-shaped roll with a glossy surface, ..., is a German bagel. In texture and hardness it resembles a pretzel, mainly because its dough consists only of flour, water, and yeast. This mixture produces a pure white compact crumb. The center is soft, however. Because of its hard surface, it is a delicious accompaniment to a cup of hot coffee."

The Chicago Tribune, October 27, 1933, noted that they have received many requests for Jewish recipes, so they have compiled a number of recipes into a booklet, Prize Recipes From Jewish Kitchens, and it includes a recipe for bagels. The booklet could be picked up at the Tribune office for 2 cents, or mailed to you for 3 cents.

More bagel prices information. The Winona Daily News, November 14, 1933 (Minnesota) had an ad for the Sanitary Fish Market, which mentions it has a Kosher Delicatessen Department which has bagels for sale. Their current price is 20 cents for a dozen bagels. The Herald-News, September 6, 1934 (NJ) reported that some were going to boycott bakeries in Passaic in opposition to their recent increase in prices. The new price of bagels was 20 cents for a dozen, a raise of only 2 cents from the prior price of 18 cents.. The bakers claimed to have incurred additional expenses of about 45%, yet only raised their prices by 10%. For example, the price of flour had basically doubled in the past year. The cost of sugar had risen by 35%.

The Arizona Daily Star, December 11, 1934 had an ad for Ar-Jay Stores, noting they are "importers of fancy delicacies" which include bagel.

In another contentious bagel issue, the Journal News, May 16, 1935 (NY) had 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.

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, February 21, 1936, published a joke about bagels. "Customer: Are those bagels fresh? Clerk: I don't know, madam, I've only been here a week."

The Tampa Times, March 13, 1936, had an ad for the Tampa Baking Co. which bakes bagels.

Another legal matter involving bagels was described in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 22, 1936, in 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," continuing to educate non-Jewish people who weren't familiar with the bagel.

Bagels can also help bring people together. The Miami News, December 17, 1936 reported, "To shatter the rumor of a feud between them, Milton Berle and Henny Youngman of the Yacht club, settle down at a central table in Dave's Wednesday night and share a bagel."

The Arizona Daily Star, October 31, 1937, had a classified ad for the Royal Delicatessen & Liquor Store, mentioning they sell "Fresh rolls and bagels."

The Des Moines Register, November 20, 1938, reported that Mommy's opened in Des Moines, being the first kosher style cafe to open in ten years. Bagels are one of the items on their menu.

Looking back at these newspaper articles, from 1926 to 1938,  you can see that bagels were being consumed all across the country, from New York to Florida, Arizona to Minnesota. However, they were being primarily consumed by Jewish people, and many non-Jews weren't familiar with the bagel. There is also an intriguing grammatical issue that can be seen in these articles, that some use the term "bagel" for both the singular and plural forms. Others use "bagels" for the plural form. I'll talk more about that later in this article.

The Detroit Free Press, February 21, 1939, published an article about unusual foods, which included a visit to a Polish bakery. The article began, "Have you ever gone into a Polish bakery? Where bagels are strung up the side of the windward there are so many exciting breads all over the place that you don't know where to look first?" It then continued to describe bagels, "They are those big fat pretzel-looking things stuck onto the improvised holder..." (pictured above). They asked the bakery, "What do you do with them?" The response was, "Tis said babies teeth on them, children have them with milk after school hours and even poppa serves them (with beer) when friends drop in for an evening of cards." They also noted the bagels cost 25 cents a pound.

This article is especially interesting as it makes a connection between bagels and beer, harkening back to Europe when bagels were consumed in taverns. It seems some of that pairing may have traveled to America, and might have been the norm before bagel and lox became so ubiquitous. Nowadays, would anyone have a poker game at home and serve bagels and beer? Highly unlikely.

There was an ad in the Jewish PostJuly 28, 1939 (Indianapolis) for the South Side Baking Co., detailing which stores carried their "Bagel." This usage, as well as a number of other bakery and deli ads during this time period seems to indicate that the plural form of bagel may simply be "bagel." However, there were other ads which used "bagels" as a plural form. There were also a couple "letters to the editors" that I found that argued over which term was correct. Subsequent research seems to indicate that in Yiddish, the plural form would be "bagel" but under English usage, the plural would actually be "bagels."

Bagels figured into some songs, and one is mentioned in The Morning Post, October 5, 1939 (NJ). : "Frances Faye, whose racy songs and piano thumping entertain the people who stay up until 4 in the ante meridian. Her newest ditty: "Shoot The Bagels to Me, Hymie Boy." Frances was a Jewish singer and pianist, well known for double entendres alluding to her bisexuality.

The Post-Star, February 8, 1940 (NY) published an ad from the Queen City Bakery which states they are now baking "Bagel, Bagel and More Bagel." The Pantagraph, January 14, 1941 (Illinois) mentioned that Lutz's Food Mart will soon receive a delivery, which will include "Rosen's famous bagels."

The Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1941, had an article about a Broadway entertainer, describing his use of "bagel" as slang. "A bagel is a tasty delicacy shaped like a doughnut and made of vulcanized flour covered over with an edible shellac. In Broadway conversation, it can mean what 'the bacon' means off Broadway."

The Daily News, June 12, 1941 (NY) printed that "The Q-Gee Shop on Sixth Avenue is featuring a Convoy Special--a bagel and lox sandwich, supported by two pickles on the side." This is the first reference I have found to the pairing of bagel and lox. The Daily News, September 4, 1941, also had a mention of an order of "One cream cheese and lox on a bagel." Though it is likely bagel and lox were being enjoyed before this time, it just hadn't been discussed in the newspapers previously.

More bagel prices. The Evening News, June 17, 1941 (PA) wrote about The Metropolitan Opera House, which had a store on the 7th Avenue side, "a milk bar featuring cream cheese on a bagel for a nickel." However, prices seemed to be increasing, as noted in The Herald-News, July 25, 1941 (NJ),  which wrote that local Kosher restaurants were unhappy about the rising prices of bakery goods. The wholesale cost of bagels had risen from 7 cents to 21 cents a dozen. A three-fold increase is certainly significant. The Record, December 18, 1941 (NJ) published an ad for the Big Bear Super Markets, that listed 3 bagels for five cents, which would be 20 cents a dozen. Maybe the wholesale price increase was only a short term measure.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 10, 1942, mentions how comedian Henny Youngman explained that a bagel was "an unsweetened non-Aryan version of a doughnut."

Also in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1942, there was a report of a bagel-involved crime. Jacob Rubin, described as "short, fat, bald, toothless and middle-aged, is still called the "Russian Romeo." He was arrested for luring a woman, with a bagel, to his room and then keeping her locked there for ten days. This was the fourth time that he was arrested for an "amatory episode."

Soldiers enjoy bagels too! The Democrat and Chronicle, April 30, 1942 (NY) detailed a story where Jewish soldiers, at the Pine Camp and Madison barracks, were sent bagels from the Rochester Bakers Union and USO. The bagels were said to be "..the round rolls, which Jews like to eat with coffee and a fish called lox,..." Another incident was detailed in The Jewish Post, June 12, 1942 concerning a buffet offered at a USO club. This 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.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 10, 1943 reported a Lox & Bagel party, held by the U.S.O., for servicemen. The Monroe Enquirer, July 10, 1943 (NC) also reported on a U.S.O. event, a Bagel Buffet Supper.

The Evening Herald. December 23, 1943 (PA) had an ad for the Harris Bakery, offering a dozen Hard Bagels for 25 cents. The Town Talk, December 30, 1943 (Louisiana) also had an ad, though for a Kosher Delicatessen, offering bagels for sale, though no price was given.

One of the most amusing stories I read about bagels involved a theft of a bagel truck. The Mercury, February 15, 1944 (PA), described an incident in New York: "The theft of a truckload of 1560 bagels today confronted police with a mystery--they wanted to know what a bagel was." This was Manhattan's first crime of this type, and it appears the police didn't have any Jewish friends who might have previously introduced them to bagels. It still was primarily a Jewish item, largely unknown to the general public. "Sam Eder, of Fischer's Bagel bakery explained. A bagel is a roll with a hole in the middle. Some people like them for breakfast."

Numerous other newspapers around the country wrote about this story, mostly varying in the headline. For example, The Atlanta Constitution, February 15, 1944 (GA) ran the headline, "Police Need Dictionary to Find 1,560 Bagels." Most of the articles noted that the police found the stolen truck, abandoned, and all of the bagels were still in it. However, the bakery had already made replacement bagels and delivered them by taxi cab. The Daily News, February 15, 1944 (NY) clarified the details, stating that the truck had been stolen from in front of a restaurant. When the truck was recovered, 4 bagels were missing, so the police suspected the thief merely wanted breakfast and a joy ride. This article also described that, "Bagels are glazed, doughnut-shaped rolls that taste like unsalted pretzels."

Bagel recipes have been published by newspapers before, indicating some home cooks were preparing them. The Morning Herald, March 6, 1944 (MD) mentioned a home cooking demo,  by two Jewish women, that included bagel preparation. Doesn't seem like many people are making their own bagels nowadays.

I was fascinated to learn that "bagel" and "bagel and lox" ended up as slang in the sports betting arena, though they don't appear to be used any longer. The Courier-Post, March 22, 1944 (NJ), in discussing sports betting, stated that, "In the bookmakers vernacular, 'bagel with lox' means that the books have won all the money." The Daily News, December 7, 1944 (NY) also repeated this bit of slang, that "lox and bagel is where bookies win all the money." Seven years later, there was a different use, as printed in the Democrat & Chronicle, March 28, 1951 (NY). The term "bagel" indicated, "To make two bents on two competing teams, and manipulate the odds that both bets can be won." After this time, I didn't find any similar references in my research.

In another amusing tale, the Democrat & Chronicle, April 30, 1944, discussed Captain Arthur Isaac, a bombardier who went to England about a year ago and dropped bagels on the Germans. He stated, "What's a bagel? It's a kosher doughnut, a kind of cruller with hardening of the arteries. Mom's were pretty stale by the time they reached me in England, so I took 'em along to Frankfurt, and dropped a few."

The St. Louis Star & Times, July 3, 1944 details the story of Broadway Rose, a panhandler with a five-figure income! The article states, "her favorite sandwich is a lox-and-cream-cheese on a bagel. (Lox is a spicy variety of smoked salmon, and the bagel is a hard roll in the shape of a doughnut)."

More bagel prices! The Republican & Herald, December 23, 1945 had a bakery ad, that offered a dozen "Hard Bagels" for 25 cents. The Lubbock Morning Avalanche, December 28, 1945 provided an ad for The Food Mart, noting a dozen "bagel rolls" were 40 cents.

The Oakland Tribune, May 22, 1946, published an article about the Oakland Jewish Community Center, including mentioning the various weekly events held there. On Wednesdays, the canteen serves dinner, and the article states, "The piece de resistance is lox and bagle. Lox is smoked salmon and cream cheese and bagel is hard rolls shaped like doughnuts. There are lox and bagle clubs all over the East, with a "King Lox" and a 'Queen Bagel."

The Sentinel, October 24, 1946 (PA) had a record advertisement, including a song, Dunkin' Bagel, by Slim Gaillard, a jazz singer.  You can watch a video of him perform this song on YouTubeThe Record-Argus, March 28, 1952 (PA) noted that Slim performed an alternate version, "Dunking Bagels in Bourbon," on Broadway. I haven't been able to find more about this sing, but Slim was known to enjoy bourbon, often referring to it as "bourbon-arooni," so might have dunked his bagels in bourbon. For another bagel song, the San Anselmo Herald, October 24, 1946 (CA) ran a record ad that mentioned a song, Bagel & Lox, by Eddie "Rochester," which other newspapers note is sung by The Charioteers.

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."

To Be Continued....

Part 2
Part 3

(Please note that this is a significantly expanded/revised version of a prior article I wrote on bagel history. It has more than tripled in length.)

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