Growing up in Princeton, NJ, I never heard of bagels. After college, I lived in Juneau, Alaska, and they didn’t have them there, either. I moved to New York at 27 and had my first bagel. They have been a staple in my life ever since.
Now I have a book to read as I chew: The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread by Maria Balinska.
The book, fact-filled and thought-provoking, uses the bagel as a way of viewing Polish-Jewish history. After a look at two possible predecessors, one from southern Italy and another found among Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, Balinska moves on to Poland, the Jewish bagel’s probable birthplace, and the home of its similar Christian relative, the obwarzanek.
Balinska’s own theory of the bagel’s origin is that it is a cousin of the pretzel. The bagel may have already been a staple of Jewish bakers before they migrated to Poland from Germany in the Middle Ages; or it may have developed alongside the obwarzanek, which was a favorite at the Polish royal court, a court that was frequented by the Jewish elite.
Mimi Sheraton, a former New York Times restaurant critic and author of The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World commented on modern bagels. “They’re current state is completely deporable,” she said. “They should not look big and swollen, they’re tasteless, and they stay forever soft.”
“You used to be able to eat a bagel that would give your facial muscles a good workout,” Ms. Sheraton added.
I can recommend two good bagel places, and I welcome readers to add some more! In Manhattan, go to H & H Bagels on 2239 Broadway at 80th Street, right near Zabar’s. Now that I live on Long Island, a great bagel place is Barbara’s Bagels on 113 Mineola Avenue in Roslyn Heights.