Bagels and shmear, two words that go perfectly together when choosing the food of a Jewish social function. A break fast on Yom Kippur is incomplete without fresh bagels, cream cheese, and lox. Food is inextricably linked to cultures, and for Jews, bagels are one of the defining staples. But how did this strong cultural connection emerge?
The simplest answer is that bagels stem from Polish culture, to which so many Ashkenazi Jews trace their roots. Yeasted wheat dough rings, boiled before baking, first appeared in Poland in royal records from 1394. But a closer look at ancient cookbooks indicates that bagels may have emerged earlier, in Arabic societies. The first mention of this product was in an Arabic cookbook from the 13th century, which referred to the bread as ka’ak. The preparation of these two products are similar and both can be regarded as the ancestor of the modern day bagel. However, these recipes did not emerge independently in a geographically confined society. Rather, as Charles Perry in a 2017 NYU postulated in Scents and Flavours (A Bilingual Translation of a 13th Century Syrian Cookbook) (NYU Press), bagels started in Arabia and spread to Poland through Mediterranean sea roots. By the 16th century, Polish diet had become dependent on bagels.
When anti-Semitic fervor rose in Poland in the 1800s, Jews fled their country for the United States, with the majority of them settling in New York City. They brought with them their prized bagels and, by 1900, had established a thriving bakery system. All workers were unionized by the Bagel Bakers Local 338, which standardized production of bagels and ensured a quality product for all New Yorkers. But the bagel produced then was not the bagel we enjoy today. Rather, it was half the size. Only in 1980 did mass production practices double the size of the bagel, creating today’s iconic bread.
Bagel toppings also evolved in America. Lox, or smoked Nova Scotia salmon, was a luxury out of reach for many working class Jews until the 1950s, when it began showing up as part of the standard Sunday breakfast. The Everything Bagel, with a coating of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, onion flakes, garlic flakes, pretzel salt, and pepper, emerged around 1980. Although there is a dispute about the true founder, the main theme of the creation is that leftover toppings from many different types of bagels were saved at the end of preparation and combined as a single topping.
While the origin of bagels may have been in Arabic cultures, Jews have taken over the dish as a cultural staple. For this, we can thank our Polish ancestors for bringing the recipe across the Atlantic in their exodus. In the melting pot of New York City, they established proliferating bakeries and a popular bagel culture that is inextricably linked to Jews.