Today, it’s a breakfast staple, but, as recently as 1960, The New York Times had to define it for readers—as “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.” That’s right, this episode is all about the bagel, that shiny, ring-shaped, surprisingly dense bread that makes the perfect platform for cream cheese and lox. Where did it come from? Can you get a decent bagel outside New York City? And what does it have in common with the folding ping-pong table? Come get your hot, fresh bagel science and history here!
Though the bagel is most closely associated with the American Jewish community, its actual origins in Eastern Europe have become the stuff of myth. Competing tales offer explanations as to how, as early as the 1600s in Poland, Jews came to relish the bagel at childbirth, celebrations, and funerals. But, according to Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, this most Jewish of breads is likely descended from a German communion bread. The original communion bread was a large, ring-shaped bread that was baked in monasteries and shared among the congregation. “And my theory is that basically what you have is a family tree,” she told Gastropod. “One of the ancestors is the communion bread, and, from that, you have a descendant that becomes the pretzel, but you also have a descendant that becomes the bagel.”
Balinska's theory makes even more sense when you learn that the original bagel was hard, like a pretzel. “You can’t slice it,” said Rabbi Jeff Marx, author of an essay titled “Eating Up: The Origins of Bagels and Lox,” published as a chapter in Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the U.S. “All you can do is break off a piece of the bagel and dip it either in schmaltz—chicken fat—or maybe a little bit of butter.”
So how did the bagel become soft and puffy, and how did it eventually meet its soulmates, cream cheese and lox? For those stories, Balinska and Marx bring us—along with the bagel—to New York City, where the bagel helped transform America, and was itself transformed in the process. Today, bagels are found in supermarkets across the land, but many aficionados swear that a truly great bagel can never be made outside the five boroughs, due to the magical qualities of the city's municipal water supply. To uncover the truth, we meet Francisco Migoya, head chef at Modernist Cuisine and co-author of Modernist Bread, who shipped NYC tap water to his kitchen in Seattle in order to put that belief to the scientific test. For his results, plus bagel jokes, bagel ballet, and the bagel machine that took bagels mainstream, listen in now!
Maria Balinska and The Bagel
Maria Balinska is the author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread,
Rabbi Jeff Marx and "Eating Up"
Rabbi Jeff Marx is the author of an essay titled “Eating Up: The Origins of Bagels and Lox,” published as a chapter in Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the U.S.
Francisco Migoya and Modernist Bread
Mary Ting Hyatt and Bagelsaurus
Mary Ting Hyatt opened Bagelsaurus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2014, after operating a successful pop-in in nearby Brookline—and the lines have wrapped around the block ever since. Insider tip: On the weekends, you can skip the line and walk up to the front to buy a grab-bag dozen bagels, hot from the oven, with any type of packaged cream cheese. Or did you happen to come when the line's not too long and you can order a sandwich? The Classic Jumbo is Cynthia's go-to, and she loves it on an olive bagel, particularly with a roasted tomato (as per Nicky's suggestion when she visited!).
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