Bagel cuisine and culture

The Jewish Internet

By Mark Mietkiewicz

To Butter a bagel
You need to finagle/Just to inveigle
The slithering spread/To the edge of the bread (

That’s Alma Denny waxing poetic about the food that has conquered bakeries, supermarkets and wastelines everywhere. More than just a piece of dough that’s boiled and then baked, the bagel has a special place in Jewish cuisine and culture.

With origins steeped in controversy, the bagel as we know it seems to date to the 17th century. Leo Rosten suggests in The Joys of Yiddish that the first time bagel is mentioned in print is in the Community Regulations of Kracow in 1610. The food was given to women in childbirth since “the circular shape was seen to represent the lifecycle and an omen of good luck (”

Elsewhere, we are told of a Viennese baker in 1683 “who wanted to pay tribute to Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland.

King Jan had just saved the people of Austria from an onslaught of Turkish invaders. The king was a great horseman, and the baker decided to shape the yeast dough into an uneven circle resembling a stirrup or ‘beugal’ (”

But wait there’s more. Some of the best online periodicals have devoted thousands of words to the delicacy. At, you can read about the Secret History of Bagels ( and over at, food writer Joan Nathan has penned a Short History of the Bagel (

Donna Gabaccia says bagels tell us a lot about business, culture and the American immigrant experience. The social historian follows the bagel from its entry into the United States in the 1890s and “its transformation from a Jewish specialty into an American food.”

Along the way, she points out some fascinating ironies such as the affinity between bagels and cream cheese, “a product she claims was introduced and developed by English Quakers in their settlements in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia in the 18th century (”

Did you know that eating bagels can be hazardous to your health? According to the head of the Department of Emergency Services at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C., the greatest under-reported injury is hand cuts from slicing bagels.

Peggy Trowbridge Filippone has accumulated some great bagel trivia, lore and advice on her Home Cooking site. She shares how to cut bagels safely (don’t use acrylic holders) and how to store bagels. “At room temperature in plastic bags or freeze immediately. Refrigeration hastens staleness (

Eating bagels can pose other risks as Elizabeth Mort found out the hard way. After the Pennsylvania woman gave birth last year, her baby was taken away when opiates were found in the mother’s blood. According to Mort, the source of the false positive was the poppy seed bagel she ate shortly before giving birth. Baby Isabella was returned after five days in foster care. The American Civil Liberties Union is filing the suit on behalf of the angry parents (

OK, enough talk. Time to eat!

Check the Jewish-food Bagel Archives where you’ll find 29 recipes including Garlic, Egg, Cheese, Onion, Whole Wheat, and Cinnamon and Raisin ( From the too-good-to-be-true department, Fantastic Fat-free Bagels have yeast, flour and sugar but no oil ( And just because you can’t stomach gluten doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a bagel (

Don’t try to convince Johanne Blank that a bagel should have trendy ingredients. “Most people’s idea of a bagel seems to be of a vaguely squishy unsweetened doughnut, possibly with some sort of godawful flavoring mixed into it (with the ‘blueberry bagel’ being perhaps the most offensive), generally purchased in lots of six in some supermarket… possibly even frozen.” She then tells us at length how to create “Real, honest, Jewish (Lower East Side) Purists’ Bagel (”

Everyone knows that a bagel isn’t a bagel without a space in the middle. But what about space without a bagel? When Montreal-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff was asked what food item he wanted to take about the Space Shuttle Discovery, the answer was simple: bagels from cousin Rhonda Shlafman, owner of Fairmount Bagel in Montreal. Rivals at St. Viateur proclaimed joy to see bagels in space, even if they weren’t theirs (

If you don’t happen to live in Montreal or have a cousin who owns a bakery there, you can try this recipe: Or if you prefer to follow along as you watch someone bake some bagels, you’ll find numerous mentors on YouTube (

Now that you know how to bake a bagel, it’s time to decide what to put inside it (aside from your teeth). Sure, you could opt for the tried-and-true lox and cream cheese. But I came across a recipe page with some creative suggestions like Baked Brie with Amaretto, Peppery Avocado Purée and that old stand-by, Pumpkin Fluff Dip. Please note that some of the would-be bagel toppings on this page are not kosher (

More than just a foodstuff, bagels have taken their rightful place in the world of philosophy. Ponder this piece of wisdom. “Life is like a bagel. It’s delicious when fresh and warm, but often it’s just hard (”

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