The Bagel

Maria Balinska, The Bagel, The Surprising History of Modest Bread


Isn’t the bagel to Jews what fish and chips is to the English? Maria Balinska’s research suggests that this assumption should not be taken as the hole truth.

The Bagel, The Surprising History of Modest Bread
The Bagel, The Surprising History of Modest Bread

Today we think of the bagel’s home as New York with roots in Poland, but Balinska finds forms of this iconic bread in Italy and the Far East. She catches the baby Jesus eating it in Fra Lippi’s painting Madonna del Pappa where the child’s halo is mirrored in the bagel he clutches in his left hand. Perhaps Jesus also ate one at the Last Supper, she muses, but, if this famous meal happened during Pesach, was Jesus enjoying a bagel made from matzo meal? In her free-associative style, Balinska doesn’t go into this conundrum but she does travel far in search of the bagel’s diverse origins. She finds a version in fourteenth-century Poland in the popular obwarzanek and she even discovers a form of a bagel among the present-day Muslim population of North-west China where it is known as the girde.

Balinska maintains the common-sense assumption that humans tend to have the same good ideas in different parts of the world which accounts for the wide appeal of the roll with the hole. What, she asks, is the philosophical (or nonsensical) resonance of this hole? Does it express death? Nothingness? Infinity? The charm of the book is not that it has answers but rather it is a teaser for those of us who have never really given the bagel more than the occasional thought. Indeed, like the glass we smash under our bridal foot, its possible interpretations are tantalising.

This biography of the bagel is a mixture of serious research, anecdote and folklore. Balinska reminds us of the story of the fools of Chelm who go and ask the neighbouring town’s baker for better holes to improve their bagels. Armed with their newly-purchased holes they run home fast across fields only to trip and drop their precious objects. Shamefacedly they return empty-handed to Chelm.

Balinksa, whose family is both Jewish and Catholic, seeks to establish the bagel as a way of uniting religious and political, culinary and social history. She implies that the bagel is not merely a staple food which needs serious chewing, but rather a reflection of Jewish philosophy; in other words it is not a meal which can be swallowed thoughtlessly.

She unearths some fascinating history. The word bagel comes from the Yiddish beigen, to bend. One story relates how the bagel came out of Prussia in the ninth century and that it was considered a bread that Jesus ate. Jews therefor were not allowed to bake it and local anti-Semites attacked any Jew who dared bake bread. The Jews decided, therefore not to bake but to boil their bagels, to escape this rule. So the birth of the boiled and, eventually baked,bagel became the norm.

Although medieval history provides essential background it is the more arresting twentieth-century memory of the bagel in the Warsaw Ghetto that is particularly haunting. Balinska’s descriptions of half-starved bagel-selling children in the Warsaw Ghetto with their sawdust mini versions still shocks. The majority of Poland’s bagel-sellers were to die in the Holocaust. But the bagel, and the Jewish life it represented, refused to be annihilated and the narrative drive which takes Balinska to the ghettoes and to European Jewry’s death throes revives when she evokes the bagel’s survival and rebirth in the USA.

The bagelisation of the Unitd States of America meant, that in order for it to flourish as a business option, it had to lose its Jewish association and become as American as McDonalds. In the l970s it was marketed, somewhat incongruously so as to appear American as ‘the Jewish English muffin’. The idea was to change the ethnicity by bleaching it into an Anglo-Saxon mould. It was promoted with ‘familiar American foods’ like jam, tuna and even bacon. Balinska shows how ‘bagel’ enters the American language by quoting a US Army officer before a Vietnam bombing raid. ‘You might call the whole thing a bagel strategy. We will bomb all around Haiphong and isolate it’

And where is the bagel today? We see it all over the UK where few gentiles would guess it has Jewish roots. Here, despite its humble street origins, it is marketed as a cool and rather sophisticated bread, Back in Poland, the bagel is enjoying a new popularity. In Warsaw the ‘New York bagel’ with smoked salmon and cream cheese is seen as an exotic import. Few Poles realise that the New York bagel, which is the sister of their native obwarzanek, has made its homecoming.

And if the English can have their cod and chips to make them feel ethnically proud why can’t the Jews of London, Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh take a double pleasure in seeing their bagels in Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or Tesco? Who are we kidding about the identity of the bagel or even fish and chips? How many know that cod and chips arrived on this island with the entry of Spanish and Portuguese Jews and that it was so delicious that the English seized the recipe and made it their own? Similarly Muslims and Catholics may have invented the bread with the hole, but the Jews stuffed it with cream cheese and lox and made it Jewish. Balinska’s quirky book is full of intriguing insights. After reading it, I’ll never be able to look at a bagel’s empty eye without giving it a wink.

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