Whether you prefer yours toasted or not, with scallion cream cheese or just buttered, with lox or jam, chances are you love a good bagel for breakfast. And you aren’t alone – Americans have enjoyed bagels for about 100 years, ever since Polish Jews brought them to New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. But not all bagels are alike. Bagel style varies wildly, from the dense and chewy Montreal variety to the huge, crusty rolls you find in New York. In this week’s Hungry History, we’ll take a look at the history of bagels, and find out just how these two delicious schools of bagel making came to be.
Humans have made bagel-shaped breads for thousands of years, dating back to Ancient Egyptian times. The reason is simple: that hole in the middle makes for easy transport. Just sling the rolls on a rope, tie them to a pack, and you’ve got a great portable meal. The exact origin story of the bagel, however, is a bit harder to tie down. Legend has it that the bread was created in honor of King Jan Sobieski of Poland, who saved the city of Vienna against a siege by the Ottoman Turks in 1683. Though popular, the story is likely apocryphal since the first mention of bagels in print comes a full 70 years earlier. Bagel historian Maria Balinska believes bagels are actually a close cousin to the pretzel, as they are baked in similar ways and first appeared at similar times.
European Jewish bakers have made bagels ever since, but they didn’t reach North American shores until the early 1900s. Jewish immigrant communities quickly established bakeries in New York, where the Bagel Bakers’ Union had 36 members by 1915. New York bagels were smaller then, 2 to 3 ounces, and got their trademark crust by boiling in water that had lye or malt extract added to it. The bagels were then baked in a conventional gas oven until their chewy interiors were cooked through. Although we associate “everything” bagels with New York, these early bagels were almost always plain: “everything” didn’t appear until the 1970s.
Up in Montreal, a large Jewish immigrant population began baking their own bagels around the same time. But these were different: Montreal-style bagels are much smaller, with a large middle hole. The dough is sweeter, with both egg and honey added to it, and the boiling is done in honey water instead. Toppings are sesame or poppy seed. Most significantly, the baking is done in wood-fired ovens. Purists say this step adds both crunch and taste to the final product. The differences in New York and Montreal bagels can be explained by looking at the ancestral homes of the new immigrants. While both sets of bagel-baking Jews came from Poland, they came from different parts of the country. Those regions, in turn, had their own bagel preferences, which bakers took with them to their new homes.