This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Bagelization of America, first released on March 26, 2019. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
MARIA BALINSKA: What I found fascinating was that there are many other ring shaped breads. And there’s something I think about our human fascination with this shape which is—to jump straight into the sort of more grandiose—is infinite, right? That has no beginning, it has no end. It’s like a halo.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I have to admit that I’ve never thought about this food item like a halo, I’m seeing it in a whole new light.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Aw! [BOTH LAUGH] I do sometimes wish it was infinite and had no end, like when I’m having a particularly delicious one, fresh and hot from the oven with just a good schmear of veggie cream cheese.
GRABER: Have you guessed what it is? If Nicky’s schmear clue didn’t tip you off—we are indeed finally telling the story of the bagel. This is something a lot of you have asked for, and we are more than happy to oblige.
TWILLEY: I never had a bagel ‘till I came to the U.S. from England for grad school, but once I tried it, I fell in love. I had it for breakfast everyday while I was getting my Masters. Although it was an Einstein Brothers bagel which I now know not to be the world’s greatest example of the genre.
GRABER: And many of you already know that I’m Jewish, and I grew up outside DC, the kid of two New York Jews, so you can imagine that bagels have always been a critical part of my life. Always. I, by the way, am Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: Oh yes, and I’m Nicola Twilley. And this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at bagels and indeed all food through the lens of science and history.
GRABER: And we have some serious questions about this bread that has changed both our lives. What is a bagel? Is it actually Jewish?
TWILLEY: And can you get a decent bagel outside of New York City, or is it all about the water?
GRABER: All that plus the holy moment where the bagel met its bashert—or basherts—for non Jews, that’s its soulmates. Lox and cream cheese.
TWILLEY: The holy trinity of foods, to borrow a metaphor from completely the wrong religion.
TWILLEY: It’s possible that there are some of you out there who are like me, when I first came to the States nearly twenty years ago—it’s possible that there are some of you listening who have never tried a bagel. And maybe don’t even know what a bagel is.
BALINSKA: I would say it is a ring shaped boiled and baked bread.
GRABER: Maria Balinska wrote an entire book on this ring-shaped boiled and baked bread. The book is called The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread.
TWILLEY: We also got some pointers from Chef Francisco Migoya, to help you know if you’re dealing with a bagel or not.
MIGOYA: Obviously the first thing is the visual aspect of it.
TWILLEY: Francisco made a lot of bagels while researching the bagel chapter of his book Modernist Bread, which is the shelf-breakingly heavy set of volumes on all things bread published by the Modernist Cuisine team.
MIGOYA: So bagels should be shiny. That shine comes from how they’re cooked.
GRABER: The shine happens when the bagels are briefly boiled, before they go into the oven. Like Maria said, boiled then baked.
MIGOYA: The other is it doesn’t matter too much but I mean it should be round and it should have a hole down the middle. I mean that’s you know, if it doesn’t have that hole down the middle, it could be any other bread, but that hole down the middle is pretty important to make it clear that it is a bagel.
TWILLEY: Okay so two visual clues: it needs to be shiny, and it needs to be ring shaped. But what about how it should taste?
MIGOYA: Bagels are very dense breads. And by this I mean they’re not light and fluffy like you know Wonder Bread. They don’t have like an open crumb like you would have from like you know a sourdough for example. And so you want to have this like dense bread that when you bite into the bagel it doesn’t easily yield, right. It’s got that chewiness to it. Some people say that a really good bagel your jaw should hurt when you’re done. But to me that doesn’t seem like a pleasurable thing, so I would kind of disagree with that. You know it’s not a chore to eat a bagel, it shouldn’t be a chore to eat a bagel. It should be, you know, a pleasant experience.
GRABER: So there are bagels, but then there are bagels. I called someone who is particularly opinionated about what makes a good bagel.
GRABER: Hi mom!
GRABER: So, I want to talk to you about bagels.
TAMAH: One of my favorite topics.
GRABER: Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mother Tamah has very strong opinions about what is and isn’t a bagel. And she is very comfortable sharing those opinions, with everyone.
TAMAH: One time I went to a cafe somewhere on Rockville Pike and I had only a few minutes and I just wanted a cup of coffee and a bagel. So I asked for a cup of coffee and a bagel. And the waiter brought out this round piece of bread. And I said to him, What is that? And he said, It’s bagel. Well there was a hole in it. And I said to him, No, I’m sorry. This is a round piece of bread. And it was baked, it was not boiled. And it is not a bagel.
GRABER: Yes, people do call things bagels that aren’t shiny and weren’t boiled.
TWILLEY: But they are wrong.
GRABER: We’ll get back to where the bagel went wrong in just a bit. But okay, so the bagel is boiled and baked, and it’s shiny and dense and chewy. And, of course, as I’ve known for my entire life, the bagel is Jewish. Right?
BALINSKA: “Is the bagel Jewish?” is a big question in the sense that—as a type of bread it isn’t necessarily Jewish. But the bagel, in it’s sort of essence, yes is very Jewish.
TWILLEY: What? I think what Maria is saying that there are non-Jewish ring shaped breads out there too.
BALINSKA: The simit is one in Turkey for example. You have the tarallo in Italy. and you have other breads that have come and gone actually.
GRABER: The simit is shaped like a bagel, but it isn’t boiled. The tarallo is really close—it is boiled, it’s round with a hole in it. And it isn’t just dense, it‘s actually really hard.
TWILLEY: Which doesn’t sound much like the bagels I know and love today. But according to Rabbi Jeff Marx, the original bagels were hard.
JEFF MARX: Very different than we think the bagel is today. The best way to understand this is to picture the hard pretzel. And the fact is that the original bagels were like pretzels.
GRABER: Jeff Marx is rabbi of the Santa Monica Synagogue in California. He contributed to a book called Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the U.S. His chapter is “Eating Up: The Origins of Bagels and Lox.”
TWILLEY: Which, by the way, was recommended to us by listener, Sarah Benor. Thank you Sarah!
GRABER: Jeff’s point that the original bagels were like pretzels does make sense—because Maria told us she thinks the pretzel and the bagel have a common ancestor in Germany.
BALINSKA: The original communion bread was actually shared which makes sense. I mean it’s communion right. It’s coming together. It was a large ring shaped bread. And that was then baked in monasteries. And my theory is that basically what you have is a family tree that—one of the ancestors is the communion bread. And from that you have a descendant that becomes a pretzel. But you also have a descendant that becomes the bagel.
TWILLEY: So the pretzel and the bagel are like brothers from another mother. Or actually, the same mother. And so like Jeff says, they used to be a lot more similar than they are today.
MARX: They were round and they had a huge hole in the middle of them. Picture them almost like bracelets. You could almost put one over your hand and get it on your wrist. Roughly speaking that’s about a four and a half inch hole. Enormous!
GRABER: If you’d ordered a bagel in the 1600s, this is what you would have gotten.
MARX: Not only that while they are round their thickness is very small probably no more than a half inch thick. And they’re hard. They have a snap to them. They’re exactly like pretzels. That’s very different than the bagel we have of today. Think about the fact that you can’t put a schmear, you can’t put a spread of anything on those early bagels. First of all you have a gigantic hole! all your schmear is going to fall right in the middle of the hole. Number two, it’s thick and hard like a pretzel. You can’t slice it so you never have like a bagel half, 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.
TWILLEY: So weird. But so where were these hard pretzel-like bagels being made? In Germany?
GRABER: Maria says the very first mention of a bagel that she could find was in Krakow, in Poland.
BALINSKA: So that was in 1610, and it was a document that was issued by the Jewish elders of Krakow in which they were telling the Jewish inhabitants of Krakow, you know they were giving instructions on various things. And the fact that they included an instruction on how to consume bagels—and basically it was about when you should consume them. And it had to do with birth and bris of a male baby—indicated that actually it was something of value. Because if it was not something of value, they never would have included it in these regulations.
TWILLEY: So, but wait. How did this descendent of a German communion bread get to Poland and become Jewish?
GRABER: The exact details are hazy, they were never written down, because nobody at the time thought it was a big deal. But a lot of Jews ended up settling in Poland, which surprisingly to me was a pretty okay place for Jews in the 1500s.
TWILLEY: Poland was a little bit of a special case in Europe—it had a land-owning aristocracy and a feudal peasant class and not much in between. And so Jews were kind of useful—they filled that gap. They were the skilled artisans and the merchants.
GRABER: And some of those skilled artisans were bakers. So as it happens, Jews ended up basically becoming the bakers of Poland. And they made this round, boiled bread they called a bagel.
BALINSKA: But but but you have this cousin called the obwarzanek in Poland which is practically identical. But it doesn’t have the same stories told about it. It doesn’t have it doesn’t have the same history. It doesn’t have the same narrative over time.
TWILLEY: The obwarzanek was basically a gentile bagel. But because Jews were doing all the baking, well, the bagel bagel won.
GRABER: There are many legends about the bagel’s origins. And—side note—we have the stories of those legends in our special supporter email, which you’ll get if you support us on Patreon at $5 an episode or on our website at $9 a month.
TWILLEY: But also side note: We love and need your support at any level, even if that particular supporter level is too high for you!
GRABER: We have goodies for the rest of you…
TWILLEY: OK, back to the bagels’s origins. So we know kind of where the bagel came from, legends aside. It’s a Jewish version of a ring-shaped boiled bread situation that was happening all over Europe. But the name bagel—it’s such a lovely word to say—where does that come from?
MARX: Okay. so we don’t even know where that word for bagel comes from. For example it might be the… from the Yiddish “beygn,” which means to bend. It’s also possible it comes from the German or middle German a word “böugel,” which means ring, due to its shape. Or even the Austrian word “beugel” which means a stirrup which is also sort of a round type object.
GRABER: Maria’s pretty sure it’s from the Yiddish word “beygn.”
BALINSKA: Because it originally comes from the Yiddish, Yiddish can be pronounced in different ways. And so according to where the Yiddish was spoken, it could have been beigel it could have been bagel. In fact the bakers in New York for some time were the Beigel Bakers. But in the end it became bagel.
GRABER: As Maria said, by the 1600s, bagels were already integral to the Jews of Poland. You found them at the shiva house, a house of mourning. You ate them to celebrate a bris, a circumcision. You brought them to a woman in labor. People wrote songs about them and told stories about bagels. They were basically just about as important to Jewish life then as they are today.
TWILLEY: But Jewish life changes—and so does the bagel—when they both come to America!
GRABER: Any excuse to play one of my favorite childhood songs.
NEIL DIAMOND “COMING TO AMERICA”
BALINSKA: The Bagel came to the U.S. and to Canada by the way. But with immigrants from Eastern Europe, and to begin with it really was consumed very much within the Jewish community. And you know you see mentions of it, you see bagels figure in stories from the sort of early 20th century. There are bagels being sold on the Lower East Side. There are pictures of bagels being sold in Lower East Side.
TWILLEY: The Lower East Side of Manhattan is very desirable and trendy these days. But in the 1880s, it was a dump. And it was where all the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe lived because that was all they could afford.
GRABER: And of course they all still wanted their beloved bagels.
BALINSKA: The bakeries on the Lower East Side were, as far as I can tell, real hell holes actually. I mean they were in the basement. They were on Rivington Street. They were very low ceilinged. They were probably crawling with cockroaches and rats and I mean all manner of other beasts. The bakers who worked there were working under, you know, really tough conditions and were breathing in all this flour all the time, right. And were therefore actually, their lifespan was quite short.
TWILLEY: So, they organized. They formed Local No 338, the Bagel Bakers Union. And they went on strike carrying a gigantic loaf of bread fifteen feet long through the streets of the Lower East Side.
GRABER: I thought that what really kicked off labor laws in New York City were the garment workers, who were also Jewish. I’d always learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911—146 immigrants workers died, most of them young Jewish women. They couldn’t get out because the factory owners had locked the doors. And activists formed unions and got labor laws enacted after and because of the fire.
TWILLEY: But it turns out that yes, the fire did really help the labor movement gather momentum. But the garment workers were actually copying the bagel bakers.
BALINSKA: What is interesting is that the bakers, although much smaller group of course than garment workers, but their victories in terms of creating unions and getting certain rights and working conditions really helped pave the way for the triumphs of the garment workers.
GRABER: These labor laws are super important, and we are pro-union. But we are also a food podcast. So while that’s how the bagel changed America, we want to know: How was the bagel itself being changed in its new American home?
TWILLEY: So one thing to know is that compared to Eastern Europe, American wheat was cheaper and higher in gluten, too. And gluten makes dough elastic. Which made a big difference to the bagel hole.
MARX: So as a result it snaps way back and your hole starts to close. All of a sudden you no longer have a four and a half inch hole. All of a sudden you have a two and a half inch hole because of the elastic nature of the wheat.
GRABER: So the bagel hole shrinks. And the bagel itself gets a little bit softer. Not too soft, of course.
BALINSKA: You know it was called a cement doughnut in Brooklyn.
TWILLEY: But it’s now sliceable at least. You can cut your bagel in half because it’s a little bit softer—it’s no longer brittle like a hard pretzel.
MARX: Now what that also means is not only do you have a small hole, you can in theory put a schmear across it without it falling through the hole.
GRABER: But those Jews a century ago, they’re not putting cream cheese on the bagel. That shmear is usually shmaltz, chicken fat. Or maybe a little butter.
MARX: And finally what happens to the shape of the bagel is wheat is plentiful in America. The bakers can buy wheat flour for a fraction of the cost. The consumers. The Eastern European Jews are amazed when they come to America. Bread is available to everybody! And as a result you don’t have to be so parsimonious with the amount of flour that you’re using in your bakery products.
TWILLEY: So the bagel gets bigger, like everything in America. And the flour—the flour is white, not wholewheat. So the bagel gets even softer and puffier. Traditionalists mourned the loss of rye, which had been kind of integral to Jewish life till then. But the bagel never looked back.
GRABER: But, as I just said, it’s still topped with chicken fat. Not cream cheese. And not lox. When and how did the bagel meet its match? We have that story after a quick word from our sponsors.
TWILLEY: We’re talking, of course, about bagels and lox.
MARX: Well first of all in the same way when we talk about spaghetti and meatballs. Right. What we really mean when we say spaghetti meatballs is spaghetti, marinara sauce, meatballs. Same thing with bagels and lox. Really what we… It’s shorthand for bagels cream cheese and lox.
GRABER: So, we have established the fact that while there are round boiled and baked breads that are not Jewish, bagels are in fact Jewish. But, okay, what about lox, is that Jewish?
MARX: Oh ok. No. It turns out lox is not at all a Jewish food. I think people will be surprised to know that.
TWILLEY: First of all, we should say what lox is. It comes from the German word for salmon, lachs, which became the Yiddish word for salmon.
MARX: For almost the most part there’s no salmon being eaten in Eastern Europe. The Jews of Eastern Europe do not encounter salmon, especially in lox form, until they get here to America and even then not for a long time thereafter.
GRABER: Salmon in lox form—for those of you who haven’t had that particular joy of eating it—it’s salmon that’s been cold cured in salt. So the flesh isn’t flaky, it’s almost more like sushi texture, but it’s cured and salty and delicious.
MARX: So in Eastern Europe Jews are eating salted fish to help preserve it. But they’re eating carp. Pike perch and trout. That is if you’ve got some money. And otherwise you’re eating the poorer fish you’re eating Chub and especially herring if you’re poor. Salmon was simply not part of their diet.
TWILLEY: Then Eastern European Jews get to New York. But there’s not actually a whole lot of salmon there, either. The Atlantic salmon has all been fished out, and what’s left is really expensive, way out of an immigrant Jew’s price range.
MARX: Where is there salmon however? In the Pacific! The Pacific is teeming with salmon, it’s thick with salmon, you can put a net down and just scoop them out. OK. But the issue now is how do you get the salmon from the West Coast to the East Coast.
GRABER: At first, there wasn’t even a train, and Pacific salmon was shipped around South America to get to the East Coast. Then finally the Transcontinental Railway was built, and eventually there were lines up to Washington State. Which is, you know, where there was lots of salmon.
TWILLEY: But the train journey takes a long time. So that’s a challenge with a perishable product. So at first, they cook and can the salmon. And then they figure, if they sit the salmon in tanks of salty water for a week, and then ship it under loads of ice, they can get it to the East Coast in pretty good shape.
MARX: That means around the early 1890s, lox is starting to arrive on the market in New York. Okay. So you think now we have the match made in heaven. We’ve got the salted salmon coming over from the West Coast. We’ve got Jews who have a history of eating salted fish anyway to help preserve it. So in theory as it starts hitting the market in the 1890s we should have Jews snapping up lox.
GRABER: Great! Lox for everyone! My ancestors must have been plotzing.
TWILLEY: Not so fast, Cynthia. That whole process of icing the train cars full of fish and continually topping up that ice all the way across the country—unless your ancestors were super wealthy…
GRABER: And they most definitely weren’t.
TWILLEY: Yeah so.
MARX: When the Jews are eating lox in the late 1890s or early 1900’s they are literally eating it in tiny little pieces. Imagine one small piece of lox that you might buy in a delicatessen today. What they’re doing then is they’re buying one small strip of lox, and they’re bringing it home for the family. And now you have a family of four, five, six and that one little piece of lox is now getting divided into, in essence, a taste. That’s all they can afford.
GRABER: They are getting little tastes, so that’s something. But when they put it on a bagel, they’re probably first spreading that bagel with some butter.
TWILLEY: Until some smart Jew comes up with cream cheese, right?
MARX: Once again no. Cream cheese is not Jewish. No cream cheese in Eastern Europe. Cream cheese is, once again, it’s a luxury cheese. Because in essence what you’re doing is from milk curds, you’re also adding cream to it which is a real luxury.
GRABER: American cream cheese is a descendant of a British spreadable fresh cheese that was often eaten sweet, and flavored with rosewater. Some Americans—not Jews—they missed that kind of cheese, and they got the idea to make it even fattier and creamier. Shock.
TWILLEY: But the larger point is, cream cheese was fancy.
MARX: We look at menus at the turn of the century at New York fancy restaurants and for their dessert course, what are they offering but a slice of cream cheese. As a result, no surprise, the Jews aren’t buying cream cheese—they can’t afford it.
TWILLEY: But by the 1920s, two things have happened. One, the price of cream cheese has come down a little. And two, there’s some innovation how the cream cheese is being sold. Again, non Jewish innovation—this time, it comes from the Breakstone Brothers, Joseph and Isaac.
MARX: The Breakstone brothers having come from Lithuania, in fair amount of poverty grown up at first in difficult times in New York City, they understood the immigrant budget. They understood immigrants still didn’t have a lot of money especially for what had been fancy cheese. So what they develop are larger cheese products that can be cut or scooped into small amounts for the customer. Also remember you don’t have a lot of refrigeration in Lower East Side apartments and thus it necessitates going shopping almost every day to be able to have fresh food. So people would come into the dairy merchant and simply ask for a little bit of cream cheese to be able to take home.
TWILLEY: Other cream cheese companies were advertising to WASPs. They suggested enjoying their product with crackers, mixed into scrambled eggs, or even used as a stuffing for tomatoes.
GRABER: But Breakstone wanted my people to become cream cheese converts. So they published ads with these suggestions: Cheese kreplach. Everyone loves it. But you will love it even more when it’s filled with Breakstone’s cream cheese. Or, appropriately for the season, your hamantaschen will be delicious if you fill them with Breakstone’s cream cheese. And the Jews ate it up.
MARX: So by the middle of the 1920s, cream cheese enters into the Jewish community. and it enters in exactly the time that they can also begin to afford lox. And it enters exactly into the time that the bagel has now softened enough that you can cut it in half, and the hole is small enough that you could put a schmear of cream cheese across it. And thus it’s in the 1920s that the bagels, cream cheese and lox combination all comes together.
TWILLEY: Aah! Bagels, lox, cream cheese, together at last. But where was this beautiful relationship actually first consummated?
MARX: Where does it occur is an interesting question. And again we can only speculate a little bit on this, but in my research I suggest that where it occurs is in the kosher style deli.
GRABER: These kosher style delis were a new creation at the time in the 1920s. They weren’t actually kosher, they served meat and milk together. So people experimented with new Jew-ish styles of foods, like the reuben, which has both swiss cheese and corned beef.
TWILLEY: And these delis—they’re not on the grungy lower east side where the Jews actually lived. They’re on Broadway, in the theater district, which is a lot more glitzy.
MARX: It’s a place where people strut around. It’s the place in the 20s where everyone’s coming together. Your gangsters. Your self-made theater owners, your actresses, your actors. Your newspaper, radio commentators—everyone who wants to be anyone is there in the Broadway area. And in the Broadway area grow up what we would call kosher style delis.
GRABER: These kosher style delis invented sandwiches they’re still famous for today. You can barely get your mouth around them because they’re so piled high with meat or whatever filling. They’re kind of ridiculous. And that was kind of the point.
MARX: And what it really says I think on the part of those who are consuming it, is look how far I’ve come in the world. I am able to afford food in such proportions that I most certainly never had growing up on the Lower East Side. It’s a sign of wealth.
TWILLEY: These deli sandwiches cost a whopping dollar and 25 cents. In the 1920s. You could get a full dinner and tickets to a show for that money back then. You could buy a pound of steak, a dozen eggs, flour and milk for that money. It’s a lot.
MARX: So to spend that kind of money sitting down at a table for one sandwich it’s sort of like, I guess again today sitting down at a table and ordering enormous amounts of caviar with your meal. So this becomes a place where the delicatessen inhabitants are able to display to others that they’ve finally made it in America.
GRABER: So in the 1920s, Jews invented the bagels, cream cheese, and lox combo. But by the 1940s, it wasn’t just food that Jews ate, it had become Jewish food.
MARX: The fact is by the 1940s, it is identified with Jews, and sometimes it’s used for a shorthand. Jews themselves in the Jewish community will sometimes say I’m a cultural Jew.
GRABER: A bagel and lox Jew. This is what Jews called themselves if they mostly gave up synagogue but held on to, well, bagels and lox and secular Jewish culture.
TWILLEY: This is also a time when there’s a bit more of a spotlight on Jewish culture—now that the community is more established in the U.S., it has a little bit more money, more time to enjoy the good things in life. Like a joke or two.
GRABER: You might have heard of the borscht belt—these are the resort areas in the Catskills that Jews used to go over the summers. They had lots of performers at those resorts, and particularly lots of Jewish comedians. And the comedians were on what they called the bagel circuit.
TWILLEY: And there were plenty of bagel jokes on the bagel circuit. Like this gem from Milton Berle: My uncle came up with a brilliant plan. He went to Israel and made a fortune selling Cheerios as bagel seeds. And if you believe that, I’ve got some border property in the Golan Heights for you.
GRABER: Jewish comedians today still love to spice up their routines with some bagel humor.
JON STEWART CLIP
STEWART: People, it’s the holiday season. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that we’re finally there. Life’s slowing down a little bit. Finally getting to the point where we can relax. Exhale a little. Start thinking about what we’re going to do for the holidays. Me, personally. I’m whittling a menorah. That’s true. And to make it a little more authentic, I’m whittling it out of a pumpernickel bagel.
LEWIS BLACK CLIP
BLACK: Look, lie all you want about your fake beef, your mystery fish. But this, this is inexcusable.
CLIP: Dunkin’s new artisan bagels are as authentic as it gets!
BLACK: Really? Authentic bagels? Because unless you changed your name from Dunkin Donutowitz at Ellis Island, then I doubt it!
TWILLEY: These are modern day comedians—Jon Stewart, Lewis Black—proving that bagel jokes never get stale.
TWILLEY: But back in the borscht belt bagel circuit days, in the 40s and 50s, bagels were still an exotic and unfamiliar foodstuff, if you were not Jewish.
BALINSKA: Even in the 1950s The New York Times has to tell readers how you pronounce this word and what it is. What is a bagel. Which is really quite amazing when you think of how ubiquitous the bagel then becomes.
TWILLEY: Just in case you’re curious about that New York Times definition? The paper of record explained to its readers that the bagel was “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.”
GRABER: Yum. So how did the bagel become American? We’ve got that coming, after one more word from a sponsor.
TWILLEY: So some of those Jewish comedians—they were on TV, doing their bagel jokes in American living rooms. The bagel was starting to go mainstream.
BALINSKA: And then secondly, they started to be covered in all manner of magazines including McCalls. And precisely there was and there was an article sort of outlining both bagel recipes—how you could eat bagels but also the people who enjoyed eating bagels, and that included the actor James Dean.
TWILLEY: James Dean, rebel without a cause and bagel influencer.
BALINSKA: But with time, when you started to go into the 60s, you had more of an interest in a quote unquote ethnic foods. And so the bagels to some degree fell into that category.
GRABER: Ethnic foods. But the real change, the real reason Americans were introduced to the wonders of the bagel, that’s all due to a couple of brothers in New Haven, Connecticut. Murray and Marvin Lender.
BALINSKA: So the Lender brothers were really, I mean they sort of epitomize how creativity can come about as a result of not having a lot of resources. And they didn’t they didn’t have a huge budget, they had this vision of, as Murray put it, bagelizing America.
LENDER’S BAGELS CLIP
NARRATOR: A Lender’s bagel is like a perfect day. Warm and comforting at the beginning….
TWILLEY: Okay, so, how exactly did Lender’s go about bagelizing America? I mean that’s got to take more than a bagel joke, a movie star, and a catchy ad.
GRABER: Well yes. By the early 1960s, there were these newfangled revolving ovens that meant that bakers could bake bagels much more quickly. So they did. And they sold hot bagels right at the store.
TWILLEY: Which was new—before that, they baked their bagels underground and sent them to the store for sale. So that’s a big shift—the bagel becomes consumer-facing, to use some business-speak.
GRABER: But that’s not the only technological innovation. Lender’s came up with something that seems kind of obvious, actually—
BALINSKA: One of the things that fascinates me is that you know the Lenders came up with this idea of freezing the bagel, which allowed for its transportation. Which you hadn’t been able to do before, because it would go stale.
TWILLEY: Suddenly you can buy a bag of bagels and store it in your shiny new freezer, and enjoy them whenever you want, no trip to the store or the bagel bakery necessary.
BALINSKA: And they had the chutzpah to come into New York City to sell their frozen bagels. And you would have thought that would never in a million years work. And yet it did. Because it was convenient. And I do think Americans, generally speaking, like convenience.
GRABER: American Jews might have liked convenience, but frankly, Lender’s bagels kind of sucked. And they still suck. And this is also because of the third technological innovation.
MARX: The infernal bagel machine got introduced.
BALINSKA: The problem with machines and bagels was that the bagel dough was so dense. And therefore many attempts were made to automate its production. But it kept on breaking the machine. And it really was only in the 60s that a machine was prototyped. And the inventor of the machine got together with the Lender brothers.
TWILLEY: The inventor of the infernal bagel machine was actually a Californian, Daniel Thompson. He also created the first folding Ping-Pong table. So this is a man whose impact on American life was huge.
GRABER: Daniel’s dad was a bagel maker and he’d actually been experimenting with bagel-making machines. But it wasn’t until Lender’s came to Daniel with the money, that he could turn his bagel-making dream machine into a reality.
TWILLEY: And Daniel Thompson’s machine changed everything. A traditional bagel baker could turn out about 120 bagels per hour. The machine meant that any old unskilled worker could produce 400 bagels an hour.
MARX: And that in essence destroys the bagel union, because this machine can crank out bagels by the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds every day.
BALINSKA: And it worked. I mean it worked. It’s. And you know it culminated in this huge factory in Mattoon, Illinois, which I have visited and it is the largest bagel making factory in the world. And it’s, it’s really quite astounding to see this place. At full capacity it can put out millions of bagels a day.
GRABER: We said that the Lender’s bagels from that factory were bad, and we’ll get back to why machine-made bagels are not the ones you want to get hot on a Sunday morning. But yeah, Lender’s brought bagels to the masses.
LENDER’S BAGELS AD CLIP
LENDER: Hi, I’m Murray Lender. You’re in the fresh bread aisle with my new Lender’s Bagel Shop bagels….
TWILLEY: So let’s step back from the mega bagel factory in Mattoon for a minute. Once Lender’s had the bagel machine up and running in the 50s, they could make lots of bagels fast, and they could ship them frozen all round the country. But they still needed to persuade Americans that eating a Jewish unsweetened donut with rigor mortis was a desirable activity. James Dean couldn’t do all the work on his own.
GRABER: It wasn’t just the technological advances. Lender’s succeeded because the brothers were so good at what they did. Marvin was great at the business side. And Murray brought the michigas.
BALINSKA: They would have sort of “this is your life” celebrations of these buyers. They would do crazy things like dressing up in tutus. All these were all men who were running lenders but they get dressed up in tutus and do a ballet of the bagels. They pulled other crazy stunts like—the owner of a supermarket chain in New York City told me about Murray Lender jumping up on his desk pulling down his pants and on his underwear was, you know, was you know “buy Lender bagels” and doing a dance. I mean they stopped at nothing to really publicize their bagels.
TWILLEY: A middle aged man in his underpants is clearly the key to selling new breakfast breads in America. That and tweaking the flavors a little.
BALINSKA: When they were initially taking their bagels around to be tried in places that did not have Jewish communities, the way they told to me was they came up with the idea of having adding in cinnamon and raisins to bagels because those were traditional ingredients for breakfast breads in German and Austrian breakfast breads, right. So you know they certainly lay claim to the creation of the cinnamon raisin bagel.
GRABER: And my mother has been complaining about it ever since.
TWILLEY: It’s not a good bagel flavor. In fact, I’m against sweet bagels in general.
GRABER: I totally agree. Savory all the way. But Lender’s also made onion and garlic and so on, and even though Lender’s were really crap bagels, Jews bought them.
BALINSKA: I think that enough of them thought convenience was a good thing. And I know of a number of instances of individuals for example the mother of the lawyer for the bagel bakers union started buying Lender’s frozen bagels, to his horror! Because he was representing the unionized bakers.
TWILLEY: And this time, it wasn’t just Jews buying the bagels. It was everyone.
GRABER: But the Jews who knew better, and yes, my mom was one of them, they’d buy Lender’s to keep in the freezer, and they’d buy good bagels fresh on the weekends. If they could find them.
TWILLEY: Because you know what they say, you can’t find a decent bagel outside the five boroughs.
TAMAH: Rockville I came here. I tell you the truth. The only one, the only bagel that I found here that I really liked is Bagel City.
GRABER: Rockville, Maryland is where I grew up. And yes, my mom is right, there are almost no good bagels there. But the further you get from the East Coast and then the further you get from any city? Good luck.
WARREN SCHAFER: Where I’ve been I’ve been in I have been you know only 100 miles south of the geographic dead center of the U.S.
TWILLEY: This is Warren Schafer. His daughter Leah is a Gastropod fan and when she saw we were doing a bagel episode, she said we had to call her dad. So we did.
GRABER: Warren lives in Hayes, Kansas, he’s been there for many decades. And his adult life is a tale of bagel woe.
SCHAFER: There is no bagels. Lender’s. You know if you’re lucky. Frozen. You know, forget it, Lender’s it is not a bagel it’s a hard piece of white bread. I don’t know. I mean other than Alaska I don’t know where I could be with less access to real bagels.
TWILLEY: But Warren is a Jew. He loves bagels. Bagels are central to Warren’s wellbeing. So not having bagels—or only having Lender’s—that’s not really an option.
SCHAFER: Oh well there’s always things to be done if you’re desperate. You can always make them yourself.
GRABER: So did you?
SCHAFER: I did. I had a small commercial business when I was a grad student in Fayetteville, Arkansas made. I rented an organic bakery. I made about, oh 55 or 60 dozen bagels a week and I had them all presold. I mean it was like, didn’t have to hawk them out. You know there were civilized people there in Fayetteville, they snapped them up.
GRABER: Warren’s daughter Leah grew up in Kansas. And she told us that on every single vacation, Warren’s bagel search was on.
SCHAFER: You know you try to figure it out—like we would you know get a nice motel in like one of the Jersey resorts. And one of the first things I’d ask at the desk is you know where’s a good bagel shop. You know, where can I get good bagels.
TWILLEY: Jersey you see is within spitting distance of New York. And that’s the myth—that there are no decent bagels outside New York City.
GRABER: My mom always said it was because of New York’s water.
MIGOYA: Yeah. There’s this day almost like fetishized importance to the quality of the water in New York City that it’s like a magical ingredient that makes for better bagels. Some people don’t know exactly why or what it does, so they give it like this mythical powers of, you know, amazing bagel making prowess. And some people explain that it’s because of the minerals that are in there. Some people say it’s because it’s soft water, meaning it doesn’t have a lot of minerals. You name it. There’s all of these like soft science explanations as to why New York City tap water is better for making bagels. Now the flipside of this is that you can also get a terrible bagel in New York City. They have the water. So how do you explain that paradigm, right.
TWILLEY: This is Chef Francisco Migoya again—he’s the man behind all the bread in the seven trillion page Modernist Cuisine bread book. And he was trying to make bagels in Seattle.
MIGOYA: You know people in New York still continue to talk about how you know how important this water is and how it’s the one thing that makes the big difference. And so if you live in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago you’re SOL. Because you can’t make a proper bagel even if you wanted to.
GRABER: Francisco is a methodical, scientific baker. And he and his team decided to fact-check this New York City water myth by making bagels in Seattle with Seattle’s water and with New York CIty’s water.
MIGOYA: It wasn’t easy to get, you know, to ship two gallons of tap water and it certainly was not cheap. Because I mean we used the water not only to make bagels but also to boil them in there so that there would be no doubt as to, you know, the fact is that we use water, New York City tap water for the whole process.
MIGOYA: And in both instances they just physically they were identical. I’m not just saying this by looking at it, because that’s you know that’s the subjective. So what we did is we put the dough through our texture analyzer. A texture analyzer is a machine that basically, it does that—it analyzes the texture of a dough meaning that it can, it pulls on it and stretches it and it tells you how strong it is and how elastic it is and so forth.
GRABER: The texture analyzer could tell Francisco that the properties of the two bagels, the one made with the Seattle water and the one made with the New York water—they were exactly the same. The chewiness, the density of the dough, the crust. All the same. But really, what about the taste?
MIGOYA: So after that what we had to do was we had to do a taste test. Not with us obviously. So we had to basically recruit a bunch different people. We really want was people that had lived in New York and had experienced bagels in New York. So basically you’d have to tap into that memory of that, you know, when you used to have bagels in New York City.
TWILLEY: We already said Francisco is hyper methodical and scientific and this taste test was no exception—there were no toppings, no schmear, multiple tastings all done blind—
GRABER: Okay, so, what did they find? Did New York City bagels win?
MIGOYA: Absolutely nobody can tell them apart. in the majority of the cases everybody really liked both of the samples.
TWILLEY: Sorry folks. Turns out New York City does not have magical water. What it does have is just more people who know how to make a good bagel.
MIGOYA: There’s a lot of things that are much more important than the actual water that goes into the bagels.
GRABER: This means, of course, that you can make a perfectly good bagel pretty much anywhere. If you take the time to do it right.
MARY TING HYATT: I made lots and lots and lots and lots of bad bagels before making a good bagel.
GRABER: This is Mary Ting Hyatt. She owns what is hands down my favorite bagel place in the Boston area. She started as a popup and then opened Bagelsaurus in Cambridge in 2014.
TWILLEY: Her bagels by the way— they’re good enough that I brought some back for my husband Geoff to try even though we lived in New York City, surrounded by excellent bagels, at the time.
GRABER: Like Warren, Mary was also driven by desperation. I can say this from my own experience, too—there were no good bagels at the time in the Cambridge/Somerville area.
TING HYATT: And I was just looking for a bagel shop and basically I didn’t find anything at least in the Camberville area other than Bruegger’s.
GRABER: And Bruegger’s are not great bagels.
TWILLEY: So, what is the science behind a good bagel, if it’s not the water?
GRABER: Mary says the first step is to figure out the right flour.
TING HYATT: High gluten flour helps the bagels hold their shape and get height. And they also help give the bagels that chew. But if we were to use all high gluten flour that would be a pretty hard bagel so we kind of have a balance of different flours.
MIGOYA: And then the rest of the ingredients are. I mean it’s just normal stuff salt, yeast, a little bit of sugar, there’s a little bit of oil in the dough, a little—or sometimes butter depends on your preference.
TWILLEY: The next step is to mix the crap out of your dough. It has to get to what bakers call “full gluten development,” which basically means as strong as it can possibly be.
GRABER: Sarah Murphy is a baker at Bagelsaurus, and when we visited, she was mixing up the dough for the next day’s bagels.
SARAH MURPHY: You gotta mix it long enough that you get a nice tall bagel with a little bit of chew.
TWILLEY: And the reason Sarah is mixing her dough a day ahead is because a good bagel takes time.
BALINSKA: So a good bagel really needs to be to sit in a cold room not a room temperature room, a cold room, for what for for proofing or or sometimes what is called retardation. and basically it creates a lot more flavor, when it’s allowed to—the yeast is allowed to rise and sort of interact with the with the flour over a greater period of time. And you can really tell the difference when you’ve had a bagel like that. It has a certain depth of flavor that you’re not going to get from something that’s just been pushed through very quickly.
GRABER: Industrial bagels don’t get that nice long fermentation to develop the flavor. And then they also are getting pushed through a bagel making machine. It rolls the dough, presses it, and then shapes it into rings. But a really good dough like the one at Bagelsaurus wouldn’t work in a bagel-machine machine.
MURPHY: We could not easily put that dough through a machine, because it’s already built up a lot of flavorful air.
TWILLEY: So a good bagel maker will shape their bagels by hand. But you’re not out of the woods yet. Your bagel can still fail the way Lender’s does.
MIGOYA: The other step and this is kind of crucial is boiling the dough, boiling the proofed bagels. It’s a crucial step. Some bakeries cut corners with this and they’ll steam them. There’s ovens that you can put let’s say the bagels and it steams them. And then you can switch from steam to dry heat and bake them so this way there’s less work involved.
GRABER: Those bakeries are hoping steaming will work like boiling does—boiling gelatinizes the outside of the bagels. It transforms the starches and makes them gummy and cooked. They then turn brown and shiny and chewy in the oven afterwards.
TWILLEY: Steam ovens get close, but not close enough.
MIGOYA: The problem with that is that it only steams outside of the bagel—and where the bagel is sitting on the sheet pan, it won’t get steamed. So won’t it won’t pregelatinize the starch at that bottom part of the bagel that is not exposed to the steam. So it’s always going to be better to boil your bagels before you bake them, instead of steaming them.
GRABER: All these short cuts—bagel shaping machines and steam ovens—they’re really why you can find bagels everywhere today. Those bagels maybe not be great, but they are bagels.
TWILLEY: Industrials bagels were the key to the bagelization of America. Murray Lender’s grand plan really has succeeded.
MARX: It’s become I think today a little less identified with the American Jewish community and more as a American food. I mean you can witness it in, in all sorts of bizarre combinations that you can buy bagels with. Right. You can buy not only your traditional, you know, garlic bagel or sesame seed bagel but on the same side but on. But on St. Patrick’s Day you can get green bagels, you can get bagels with jalapeno peppers baked in.
GRABER: My mom doesn’t think these are bagels.
TAMAH: Like the Super Bowl one year. The Redskins were playing, so they had the colors, I think they’re maroon or something. They had bagels in those colors. And then another time I was Bethesda and I went to Bethesda Bagels. And I was absolutely horrified. They had a banana walnut bagel. They also had a blueberry one which also drove me crazy.
TWILLEY: I am so with Tamah here. Blueberry bagels? That’s just not right. Same with crazy toppings—I’m really against those.
GRABER: I agree, those aren’t the real deal. But there are a lot of people who are obsessed with different kinds of bagels. And Nicky, we haven’t even talked about the bagels that you can find in your hometown of London, or Montreal bagels—these are different from New York bagels.
TWILLEY: And this is before you get into people’s very strong opinions over whether bagels should be toasted or not. Bagels are a surprisingly contentious topic for a glorified bread roll.
GRABER: But despite these controversies, or maybe even because of them, bagels have in fact taken over much of America.
TWILLEY: Even if only in Lender’s form.
GRABER: You know, I do adore bagels, I grew up eating them. But I don’t think that this grandiose idea of infinity, as Maria told us, I don’t think that’s why bagels are so deeply loved.
TWILLEY: But there is just something special about a bagel. People have a feeling about it that you just don’t have for like a hamburger bun or a brioche.
MIGOYA: A bagel, you’d get the outside toasted and you can get this like really… It’s just such a pleasurable textural contrast that really no other bread can do that same thing. And it’s a fun shape. you know I mean there’s very few breads that have that.
TWILLEY: These are the things that make a bagel lover like Warren— well, they practically give him chills.
SCHAFER: Well they’re just wonderful, they’re chewy and it’s the texture. Okay. It’s all about the texture, it’s all about chewing and you know working with your bagel. And then there are the pleasures of butter and honey on a bagel. Whoa. So anyway, that’s all I’m saying. If I can get my hands on a decent bagel, by god I will.
TWILLEY: Excuse me while I go check out the hipster bagel-pop up that opened in my LA neighborhood— I’m feeling an extreme urge to bagelize right now.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel, and to Rabbi Jeff Marx and Chef Francisco Migoya. You can find out all about their research and writings and projects on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Warren Schafer and his daughter Leah, and to the always awesome Tamah Graber, mother of Cynthia. Thanks to listener Sarah Benor for suggesting we talk to Jeff Marx. And a special thanks this episode to Emily Pontecorvo, our fabulous new intern—we can no longer imagine life without her.