It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few decades ago, bagels were an obscure ethnic food that relatively few people outside New York City had even heard of.
In fact, the 1976 version of Webster’s unabridged dictionary doesn’t even list the word bagel.
Some food historians, in fact, say that, like chop suey in Chinese cuisine, the bagel as we know it is a New World invention masquerading as an Old World tradition.
They point to the fact that the word bagel didn’t even appear in print until 1932, from Beigel, German for any ring-shaped bread.
In fact, bagels are thought of as “American food” in Israel.
Still, whether a true bagel or merely a ring-shaped bread, the modern bagel has at least some roots in European Jewish culture.
A romantic story has it that a now-unknown Viennese baker wanted to honor the horsemen of Polish king John III Sobieski for driving the Turks out of his city in 1683.
Reportedly, the Turks left so hurriedly that the hundreds of sacks of coffee they left behind spawned dozens of coffee houses and spread the new fad of coffee-drinking throughout Europe, leading inexorably to Starbucks, but that’s another story.
Anyway, the perhaps-mythical baker took dough for a popular bread called Kipfel and shaped it into a stirrup shape, supposedly creating a new pastry called a Beugel, Austrian for “stirrup.”
But there are a few problems with the story. For one, a stirrup shape is more like a triangle than a circle.
And decades before, in 1610, the community regulations in Kracow, Poland, referred to bringing “beygls” to pregnant women.
Bringing O-shaped breads continued to be a tradition in some parts of the world as an expression of good luck during pregnancy.
Finally, what we do know is that Harry Lender built the first modem bagel factory in 1927.
When Lender’s Company began to freeze bagels and distribute them throughout the country in 1962, they set the stage for making bagels as American as chop suey.