When I was growing up in Texas, a bagel meant a thick piece of bread with a hole in it. I loved them, and, as a reform Jew, I firmly believed that when accompanied by lox and cream cheese, they became a place of worship. I still remember the indignation I felt when my cousins visited from New Jersey and wanted to order bagels.
“You can get one,” a cousin said to her husband. “But it won’t be a real bagel.”
I found out what she meant many years later when I moved to New York. A real bagel wasn’t a round piece of bread with a hole in it. A real bagel wasn’t a poor man’s donut. A real bagel was thick and puffy, with a soft, shiny crust that gave way to dense dough with chew.
And then I visited Montreal.
In Montreal the bagels are smaller, crunchier, and sweeter. Like their New York-style brothers, they’re made with malt. But unlike them, they contain absolutely no salt; instead, they have honey and egg. You’d never slice them in half and slather them with cream cheese or drop lox on top of them. Yet Montrealers will fight to the end of the earth to prove that their version is authentic. New York and Montreal have long been embattled in a bitter bagel war that boils down to this: What is a real bagel?
It’s near impossible to answer that question definitively.
Bagels Back in the Day
The bagel is not a New World creation. It’s actually been around in some form or another since the 13th century. One bagel origin story goes that in 1264, a Polish prince named Boleslaw the Pious passed a law that said Jews could freely make, buy, and touch bread like Christians. The law became hotly contested, with bishops even forbidding their flock from buying Jewish-made bread. Somehow they reached a compromise in which Jews could make bread that was boiled—the predecessor of the bagel.
Another story goes that in the 17th century, after a Polish king defeated Turkish invaders and saved Austria, a baker created a roll in his honor. Because the king loved horses so much, the resulting roll was made in the shape of a stirrup and called a “beugel,” (the Austrian word for “stirrup”). However it was named, the word itself first appeared in 1610 in the “Community Regulations” in Krakow, as a food given to women while they were in childbirth. In The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, author Maria Balinska tells these stories but also posits that “bagel” comes from a word in a German dialect meaning “ring” or “bracelet.” In other words, there is more lore around the origin of the bagel than sesame seeds on the table after a Sunday spread.
Fast-forward to the early 20th century, and Jews were emigrating from Poland to the New World in droves—with their bagels. Some of them landed in New York; many others moved to Montreal.
The New York Bagel
By 1900, there were 70 bagel bakers on the Lower East Side alone, serving a growing Jewish need for the food. By 1907, the International Beigel Bakers’ Union had created and monopolized production. But Jews weren’t the only immigrants on the Lower East Side: The area was jam-packed with everyone from the Old World. Increasingly, those other folks started to eat bagels—the Irish, the Italians, and other immigrants on the Lower East Side and eventually across the city. In the early 1950s, Family Circle was even publishing recipes for bagels with butter and smoked salmon. And in 1951, a comedy called Bagel and Yox appeared on Broadway: “Freshly baked bagels and cream cheese were handed out to the audience during intermission,” Balinska writes.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Brooklynites called bagels “the cement doughnut” because they were so thick and impossible to slice for sandwiches. Eat one and you’d instantly have a leaden belly, which might be okay for Zayda and Bubbe but wouldn’t work for Wally and the Beav. To appeal to the average American, bakers started making them softer and narrowing the hole in the middle. Indeed, journalist and cookbook author Joan Nathan has said that she believes bagels have become so popular because “they don’t taste ethnic” and weren’t marketed as an ethnic specialty.
Marketed? you ask. Well, yes. In the mid-1950s, Lender’s Bagels changed the course of the bagel in America forever: The company, which was started by a Polish immigrant in the 1920s, discovered how to freeze bagels effectively, as well as how to pre-slice and package them in polyethylene bags to keep them fresh. Suddenly everyone in America, from Long Island to Milwaukee to San Jose, could have a bagel for breakfast. Lender’s also embarked on a wild marketing scheme, with stunts like giving Johnny Carson a “bagel necklace” to be worn on his show and making green bagels for Saint Patrick’s Day.
Over the years the Lenders family pioneered a new way to make bagels: They employed big machines to roll out the dough rather than doing it by hand; abandoned the time-honored boiling method in favor of steaming large quantities at a time; and baked the bagels in steel ovens instead of the traditional stone. The result? Even more bagels on grocery store shelves! Yet something didn’t translate to mass production. When Murray Lender died in 2012, Lily Rothman in the Washington Post wrote, “Lender’s bagels may taste like white bread with a hole, but what they lack in authenticity they make up for in meaning.”
Many have deplored the state of the bagel in the U.S. (and in many parts of New York, too). Food critic Mimi Sheraton has called it “completely deplorable,” saying, “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 workout.”
The Montreal Bagel
Meanwhile, in Montreal, things went a little differently. Though the same wave of Jewish Polish immigrants brought bagels to Canada, these bagels don’t have a nifty rags-to-riches immigrant success story. The origins of the Montreal-style bagel are largely unknown, with Fairmount Bagels and St-Viateur, the two front-running bakeries, both claiming to have invented it. Fairmount asserts that its predecessor opened in 1919 and was called the Montreal Bagel Bakery; it moved to Fairmount Street in 1949, changed its name, and has been making top-notch bagels ever since. They also claim that, established in 1957, St-Viateur was started by a former employee, but it’s hard to know the truth.
However it came about, the Montreal bagel is made with egg and malt and boiled in honey-sweetened water, then baked in a wood-fired oven. The result is a slightly sweet bagel that’s crisp on the outside and light on the inside. It’s usually covered with sesame seeds or poppy seeds and isn’t meant to be sliced or eaten with anything else.
The first time I tried one, I made the mistake of eating a day-old bagel.
“What’s the big deal?” I thought. It tasted a little stale, and plain as hell.
But then I went to one of the bakeries and tried a fresh one. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, with a delicate honey perfume that added a new level to my morning experience. I was hooked.
Yet to find one of these bagels, you still have to go to a specialty shop. The bagel “didn’t go massive in Canada,” Balinska writes in her book. There aren’t mass-produced bagels in grocery stores.
That’s not to say bagels didn’t assimilate. They’re part of the everyday life of all Montrealers, not just Jews. In fact, astronaut Greg Chamitoff loves them so much that he brought Fairmount bagels with him into space in 2008.
The Artisan Bagel
Back in the U.S., we’re reaching a new age of bagel mania. "A sea change in American taste took place at the beginning of this decade,” William Safire wrote in the New York Times in 1999. “The bagel overtook the doughnut in popularity. Today we spend three-quarters of a billion dollars a year on bagels, only a half-billion on doughnuts." Many of those are Lender’s Bagels and the industrial equivalent, but many others are not.
Increasingly, people want to get back to food that’s made locally and by hand. And bagels are no exception. In the past few years artisan bagels have popped up all over New York, bringing back old-school methods that have been lost in this country, like hand-rolling the dough and baking them in a wood-firing oven. Davidovich Bagels, for example, boasts that it’s the only wholesale bakery in the world that makes hand-rolled bagels; they use unbleached flour and avoid preservatives and softeners, and they bake them on wooden blanks. They’re more than serious about their bagels and the terms they use to describe them: In 2012 Daviodvich Bagels sued Dunkin’ Donuts over its use of the word “artisan,” saying that it was false advertising.
Of course, many other bakeries have started to make high-end bagels from scratch. The most intriguing might be Black Seed Bagels, a Brooklyn-based company that makes a hybrid of the New York and Montreal styles. In some ways, you get the best of both worlds: They’re flatter and smaller than the average New York bagel, with a little extra crunch and sweetness that make them downright addictive, and they’re also firm enough to make into a sandwich. Some might call that sacrilege; I call it smart.
Others are bringing breakfast back to the table, using bagels and their accoutrements to entice diners to sit down rather than eat their food on the go. For example, after 100 years of lox and bagels to go, Russ and Daughters opened a hip sit-down cafe in 2014 with a full menu, including sandwiches like the Super Heebster (bagel toast, whitefish and baked salmon salad, wasabi-infused fish roe, and horseradish-dill cream cheese). Meanwhile former Per Se and Roberta’s baker Melissa Weller has opened up Sadelle’s, otherwise known as an ode to the bagel. Weller has spent hundreds of hours perfecting Sadelle's bagel recipes so that, for example, the bits on top of an onion bagel don’t burn. The SoHo spot serves unlimited bagels with its brunch, displayed on a wooden dowell not unlike what bakers back in Poland probably used.
In other words, the Jewish food has come a long way from its origins, and is now not only desirable but hip. Is it a “real” bagel? Depends who you ask—in a certain century, and in a certain country. To me, all that matters is that it’s delicious.