The History of Bagels

Where did the humble bread with a hole in the middle migrate from? This question has been an ongoing debate amongst historians and bagel purists alike. So let’s start with the facts. Bagels have been a major breakfast staple in the U.S. for almost half a century. They’re also the only bread that’s boiled before baked. I was quite surprised to learn about the many etiologies of the word bagel – beygel in Yddish, bouc and boug from German meaning ring or bracelet, and begul, a German word meaning a round loaf of bread.

The most popular legend traces as far back as 1683 when a Vienesse baker wanted to commemorate the victory of Polish King Jan III Sobieski over the Turks. One version has it that the bagel was formed as a stirrup to represet the king’s passion for riding. The other claims that the liberated Austrians ran and clung on to the king’s stirrups as he rode by – not quite sure which one to believe, but they both sound plausible to me =]

King Jan III Sobieski

King Jan III Sobieski

Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish,” dates back even further to 1610, in the “Community Regulations of Cracow,” where it is stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth” – Coincidentally, the Shanghai Mama’s were our first customers… or was this a coincidence??

It wasn’t long before bagels became a staple amongst the Jewish residents in Eastern Europe where they were regarded as boobliki in Russian, oazanki in Polish, and as mentioned earlier, beygel in Yiddish.

Despite the popularity of the bagel in Eastern Europe, it wasn’t until reaching American soil that bagels became widely popular, especially in Chicago and NYC. The making of cream cheese was also another big breakthrough for the bagel (mmmmm thinking of it now is making me salivate!). Even though the bagel had traversed the Atlantic and gained a wide following, the art of bagel-making was a union-inherited secret. In 1907, the International Bagel Bakers’ Union was founded, also known as Bagel Bakers Local 338, in NYC with the “regulations permitting only sons of members as apprentices.”

In 1927, the Polish baker Henry Lender left for New Haven, Conneticut and set up the first bagel factory outside of NYC. It was in New Haven where he started mass producing bagels to be sent to supermarkets, chains, etc. As a bagel purist, not sure whether to thank or frown upon the birth of the frozen, ‘grocery store’ bagel, but for those ‘roll with a hole’ lovers out there, it’s thanks to this bagel entrepreneur. Plus, I reckon if not for him bagels would’ve never stumbled upon sunny California =]