The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, by Maria Balinska, Yale University Press, 240 pp., $24
My late husband and his brother were brilliant raconteurs, especially of Jewish jokes. Here’s one that goes back to the late ’50s, when I was a young bride.
A stranded Martian—bug-eyed, armored, tentacled as in an old sci-fi movie—looms in the doorway of a Bronx bakery and casts his ocular protuberance on a tray heaped high with bagels. “Give me one of those wheels for my spaceship,” he commands in robotic tones.
Rabinowitz, the owner of the store, hastens to set the creature straight. “No, no,” he explains, “these aren’t wheels, these are bagels.”
“Give me one of those wheels for my space ship,” the Martian repeats in his zombie voice, and again Rabinowitz remonstrates, to no effect.
Finally, after several more exchanges, the baker gets a bright idea. Slicing a bagel in half and smearing it with cream cheese, he holds it invitingly out: “Look, taste, eat!” he demands.
The Martian extends a tentacle, takes a bite, and his bug eyes widen. “You know,” he says in his alien accent, “this would be deli-shus with lox!”
Even in the white-bread ’50s, as Maria Balinska demonstrates in her gem of culinary and social reportage recounting the “surprising history of a modest bread,” bagels were tasty enough to tempt not just native diners but visitors from outer space. Yet the Martian anecdote is telling in another way. “Deli-shus” as bagels, cream cheese, and lox seemed both to residents of the then largely Jewish Bronx and their hungry visitors, those hard round rolls were as yet unknown to most Americans. Tough little rings of chewy dough boiled before baking, they might appear almost extraplanetary to those first encountering them, as if they could indeed be wheels for a Martian or Venusian spaceship.
As Balinska’s meticulously researched and lively narrative reveals, however, this modest but quintessentially artisanal bread has a long and fascinating history, probably dating back at least to the ring-shaped tarallo, a kind of circular hardtack cracker, of 14th-century Puglia. But perhaps it originated even earlier in the “twice-baked circular buccellatum [that] was a staple food for the soldier of the Roman Empire,” the ring-shaped Arab biscuit known as kak, or even “the golden circular bread called the girde, which is still baked today by the Muslim Uyghurs of north-western China.” Could Jewish traders traveling the silk route between Europe and Asia have exchanged recipes for these primordial bagels, as legend says Marco Polo transmitted pasta from east to west? Balinska speculates on this possibility but shows that in any case round tarallo-like breads, later called ciambelle, were enjoyed, even revered, throughout Italy, where their circularity, like the halo above Jesus’s head, signified eternity and “in folklore their connotations were magical.”
How did a food with a sacred Christian connotation come to have a long association with Jewish history? As Balinska explores this question, she offers a sweeping overview of that history, seen, as it were, through the lens that is the hole at the heart of the bagel. For in the course of her study she examines the folklore, the politics, and even the metaphysics of this bread that has come to be a staple of many contemporary Sunday brunches. Sometime in the Renaissance, she tells us, the ciambella traveled to Poland with a young Italian aristocrat who was destined to become queen of that land and reign in the city of Kraków. There it met and melded with the obwarzanek, a circular parboiled “lean bread” popular in eastern Europe, and then that product both merged and competed with a German Jewish pretzel sometimes called the bagel or beigel, from the Yiddish word beigen, to bend. Eventually, in Poland this increasingly popular round roll would be linked with “the story of the Jewish community who made this bread their own.”
Whatever its provenance—and as Balinska argues it was more complex than some myths of origin suggest—by the 17th century the bagel was linked with both ritual and quotidian Jewish life. As early as 1610, the Jewish Council of Kraków decreed that bagels might be distributed at celebrations of circumcision. And just as the circularity of the ciambelle had been considered sacred and thus protective by Italian Catholics, so round bagels seemed to have a magic that was thought to guard women in childbirth, even while—again by virtue of the same circular intimations of immortality—these breads “became an integral part of Jewish mourning and, indeed, are to this day common fare at funerals.”
But if the bagel had a long and quasi-magical record in folklore, its socioeconomic history was more problematic, for this food that had earlier been defined as a festive treat was by the 19th century a bread of poverty. According to a folk song Balinska quotes, “For a tailor to work / The entire week was his goal / Yet he earned only a bagel / With a hole,” and even a comparatively well-off rabbi, who might dine on half a pound of meat, supped on merely “a glass of tea and a day-old bagel.” As for the bakers and sellers of bagels, their livelihood was chancy. The working days of bakers in 19th- and early 20th-century Warsaw, for instance, were arduous, long, and unpleasant, while the peddlers who sold their wares in the marketplaces of Poland frequently dwelt in abject poverty. Balinska offers a particularly poignant account of the economic and anti-Semitic oppression confronted by such peddlers—often nearly penniless women and children—in inter-war Warsaw. Arrested for vending bagels in what a policeman asserts is a “dirty basket,” a woman explains:
“Yes, the basket was on the ground but I am sick and just wanted a rest. I am a widow with six children. What am I to do? They have nothing to eat.” The judge’s verdict. . . : a 5 zloty fine. “But my children, they will die of hunger! The eldest is only 8 years old!” And the judge’s response? “I can’t help it.”
No wonder Yiddish writers, whose art proliferated in this period, recorded the woes of the bagel sellers. One song by Andrzej Wlast, a popular Russian lyricist, became a hit in Yiddish and Polish revues:
With little strength I walk these streets
Evicted and unwanted everywhere
My clothes are torn I am unwashed
With tortured thoughts I wander about
Buy quickly please
I need to sell
For I am poor and lost
And homeless in this world
As Balinska notes, these verses were “chillingly prophetic,” for if the conditions of the bagel peddlers had been dire before the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, they became hopeless for decades thereafter.
In the meantime, however, the bagel had journeyed to America, where the Jewish bakers who produced the bread succeeded, after much struggle, in unionizing their shops and achieving decent wages. Their power derived, at least in part, from their mastery of craft secrets. Wrote one trade reporter: “Bagel baking has been a Jewish art for centuries and today men of the . . . Union turn out bagels which would be a credit to their ancestors.” Alas, however, as industrially produced Wonder Bread increasingly seduced the American palate in the ’40s and ’50s, even Jewish families began to turn away from ancestral products. This is “no bread for a man, but a fake,” complained one writer after finding store-bought sliced white bread on a friend’s table. “What surprises me is that I should find this kind of stuff in a Jewish home!” But the technology that puffed up white bread in America soon led to the downfall of the artisanal bagel and the rise of a technological bagel—the frozen roll most famously mass-produced and distributed by Lenders, in tandem with the Kraft food conglomerate.
Balinska’s penultimate chapter, “The ‘Bagelising’ of America,” is bittersweet. Yes, bagels, along with the traditional accompaniments of lox and cream cheese, are now available in the United States from sea to shining sea. Any Martian with a Zagat could probably find them on menus in towns thousands of miles from the Bronx. But would he/she/it want to use them as wheels for a spaceship? They might be too soft and puffy (many are no longer boiled before baking), or even too sweet and sticky (chocolate chip bagels and cinnamon raisin bagels aren’t uncommon). Our Martian would have to indulge in a little time travel back to the pre-Lenders world of old New York to find suitably tough and chewy rolls! Can we speculate that once a primordially ethnic food goes corporate, it loses both its identity and its flavor? Consider the fate of spaghetti in the hands of Chef Boyardee, or pizza in all too many frozen-food cases, or what we used to call chow mein—and on and on.
Yet what does remain of the bagel, Lenders and Safeway notwithstanding, is its beautiful, metaphysical hole. At the heart of Balinska’s narrative is a classic tale of the “wise men” of Chelm, the sages who are really holy fools. These entrepreneurs undertake a pilgrimage to a nearby town to learn why its bagels are “tastier, crunchier and chewier.” “‘It’s simple,’” says that town’s baker: “‘It’s the hole that makes the bagel.’” And of course the sages of Chelm eagerly buy a dozen holes. But on the way home, “all of them—to a sage—fall over the crest of a hill and roll down, the bagel holes falling out of their pockets as they gather speed,” so that they return to their people empty-handed.
Is the secret of the bagel the paradox of the hole? But what then, asks Balinska, “does the hole represent? Nothingness? Infinity? What a feast for intellectual discussion in a small roll.” As she circles around Jewish history, this writer offers a comparable feast.