How The Bagel Conquered American Breakfast

This is one in a series of stories; visit The Daily Meal Special Report: Breakfast in America: What It Is and What It Means for more.

My grandmother was a wonderful Jewish baker and a nearly humorless person; her idea of a great joke was to call a bagel "a hole-y food" (get it?). She came of age at a time in America when bagels were exclusively a Jewish food — not something that, say, an African-American professional basketball player like Shaquille O'Neal could claim he ate for breakfast ("What comes out of the microwave hot doesn't always stay hot," he once famously said. "I know, because I eat bagels in the morning.")

So what happened? What caused the massive shift in the bagel's popularity, such that it now connects Mema and Shaq?

To understand how vast is the bagel's reach and how it has managed to make its way onto virtually every (non-Asian) breakfast menu in America — it's even at McDonald's — it's necessary to know a little bit about the history of the thing, to note how it came to this country, and to offer a theory as to its proliferation.

Traditionally speaking, a bagel is a kind of roll made from yeast-risen wheat dough that is shaped by hand into the form of a small ring, roughly the size of an adult's palm, and then boiled in water for a short time before being finished in the oven. The result should have a browned, crisp exterior and a dense, chewy-doughy interior.

The origins of the bagel's name are in dispute: Some argue that it comes from the Yiddish beigen ("to bend"); others that it comes from a German dialect word for bracelet or ring, bougel, or the Austrian German term for stirrup, beugel (presumably because they were originally made in the shape of one). Either way, four scholars stand alone in the category of bagel crit lit. The first is the late Yiddish language expert Leo Rosten, also a successful screenwriter, humorist, and political scientist — a fascinating guy by any measure. In his classic The Joys of Yiddish, Rosten describes the first known mention of bagel in print: In the "Community Regulations" of the city of Kraków, Poland, in 1610, the bagel appears on a list of items considered acceptable gifts for a woman on the occasion of her son's circumcision.

Our second bagel specialist, Maria Balinska, a London-based journalist and former editor for world current affairs for BBC News, who is both Polish and half Jewish, supports Rosten's assertion that Yiddish-speaking bakers in Poland's Jewish communities invented bagels. Balinska's 2008 volume The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread uses the bagel as a lens onto Polish-Jewish history, tracing the puffy ring of dough, which she argues likely sprung up as a variation on the soft pretzel, from its spread through the Slavic countries in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to its place in London's Brick Lane bakeries in the mid-nineteenth century, and finally to its mass-market emergence in American groceries in the 1960s.

According to Balinska, the bagel "arrived in America together with hundreds of Jewish bakers who were part of the massive wave of immigration into the United States between 1881 and 1914." (There's something that certainly looks like a bagel in a painting by early American still-life artist Raphaelle Peale, dated 1818 — see above — but, well...) At first, this modern-day breakfast staple was eaten mostly in Jewish communities. By 1900, there were about 70 bagel bakeries in Manhattan's Lower East Side neighborhood alone. In 1937, Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 was formed under the aegis of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers' International Union. It conducted its meetings in Yiddish.

Our third bagel maven, Joan Nathan — author of nine books on Jewish and Israeli cooking — dates one of the earliest appearances of the bagel in a context that wasn't specifically Jewish to the 1950s, when Family Circle published a recipe for "bageles," to be served as a canapé with butter and smoked salmon or with cream cheese, anchovies, or red caviar.

Bagels entered the American mainstream with the advent of automated bagel-making. Technology for machines that could mass-produce bagels was developed in 1958, and quickly discovered and employed by a New Haven-based baker named Harry Lender. Harry's son Murray invented pre-slicing machinery shortly thereafter — thus enabling a food previously known within a niche religious community to find itself on grocery store shelves across the country. Nathan proposes that these "cement doughnuts," as they were sometimes called, became so popular because "unlike Mexican burritos or Chinese egg rolls, they don't taste ethnic." As Balinska puts it, the story of the bagel is "the classic tale of the successful immigrant."

The fourth great bagel scholar, Mimi Sheraton, the first female restaurant critic for the New York Times and a noted expert on Jewish cuisine, weighs in with her own take on the bagel's history. While she clearly prefers the bialy — a cousin of the bagel with caramelized onions and poppy seeds in the middle instead of a hole, which she calls a "bagel alternative" and whose lore she chronicles in her book The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World — she knows enough about bagels to stress that many of today's versions are not at all what the Polish-Jewish bakers of earlier times had in mind. "They [are] ... big and swollen, they're tasteless, and they stay forever soft," Sheraton once told the Times. "You used to be able to eat a bagel that would give your facial muscles a workout."

Like Caesar salad, tacos, fried chicken, and other regional and ethnic specialties that have become part of American culinary culture, bagels have of course changed along the way. But the gigantic blueberry-, asiago-, or cappuccino-flavored numbers sold in fast food chains and supermarkets today should not be confused with the real thing. They can still, however, make a pretty good breakfast.