Oy vey! I’m not much of a breakfast person (partly because I sleep rather late) so you won’t ever see this site dedicated to finding the best oatmeal in the city. However there is one breakfast dish that is so iconic to New York City that there was no way I could ignore it. Bagels have to be my next food adventure.
Fortunately for me, bagels aren’t just a breakfast dish anymore. It’s not uncommon to use a bagel at lunch to hold your sandwich together. And many bagel shops in the city are open well into dinner time. People love these things any time of the day.
It’s not completely clear when and where bagels were first created. There is an old story that says a round yeast dough in the form of a stirrup (the German word beugel means stirrup) was first baked in the 17th Century as a tribute to King Jan Sobieski of Poland, who protected Austria from Ottoman invaders. However, most people discount that story as legend and point out that bagels were first mentioned in print years earlier in Krakow, Poland. And that the word bagel comes from the German word beigen meaning to bend and claim it’s a descendant of the pretzel.
Besides being delicious and filling, bagels have served practical purposes over the years. New mothers were often given bagels as gifts because the round shape symbolizes eternal life and perhaps to help with teething. Thanks to the hole in the center, merchants could thread the bagels onto rods and transport them easily to sell on the streets. And perhaps the most practical purpose of all is why we relate them to a specific people.
The bread became very popular with Jewish bakers because of its unique baking process. After the dough is kneaded and shaped, it must be chilled for at least 12 hours to allow the dough to slowly rise, thus allowing Jews to essentially make bagels without working on the Sabbath. They were able to start the recipe the night before, let the dough work on its own during the holy day, and finally after the Sabbath was over, finish boiling and baking the bagels. Some people might call that cheating, I call it inJewnuity.
So of course it was Eastern European Jews who brought the bagel to New York (and to Montreal, which has their own bagel culture) around the turn of the 20th Century. A trade union, Bagel Bakers Local 338, was quickly formed with 300 Yiddish speaking craftsmen. This union controlled all bagel making in the city, passing the exclusive trade down to sons of members, until the 1960’s when the invention of the bagel-making machine enabled the popularity of bagels to grow and reach other parts of the country.
But the magic started here in New York and it’s still the place to get the best bagels, whether you like it with sesame seeds, a schmear, lox, or tomatoes. So bring on the carbs, I’m ready to eat breakfast at lunch, get my cream cheese fill, and consume more than a few open calories. Once again, I’m ready to shut up and… Eat This!