It seems like there is a day for everything, so why not bagels! Today, January 15, is National Bagel Day. Of course, everything has its story and this is the story of the bagel.
Though not everyone agrees and no one knows for sure, the most common theory is that the bagel can trace its history back to the 14th century and the German pretzel. It is thought that German immigrants to Poland brought their pretzels with them. Over time, it evolved into a round roll with a hole in the middle, which the Polish called obwarzanek (aren’t you glad that name didn’t stick). In medieval Poland, the round shape of the bagel was believed to bring good luck in childbirth and to symbolize long life, thus they were often given as gifts to women who had just had a child. The bagel was first mentioned in written records in 1610 in Krakow. It gained in popularity all over Poland, but was especially popular in the Jewish communities, where it was now known as bjgiel or beigel. Eventually, the bagel arrived in the United State with Eastern European immigrants in the 19th century.
Though it has been around a couple of hundred years in the U.S., if you grew up in the Midwest before the 80s, you likely did not eat them as a child. They were mostly seen as a Jewish food, served with cream cheese and lox, and in my mind at least, a New York thing. In the 80s, they began to appear more as a mainstream food across the country, as ethnic foods started to gain in popularity. One of the first on the national scene was the frozen Lenders brand bagel, which they marketed through entertaining television commercials, calling it the “the Jewish English muffin.” It wasn’t long before bagel shops began popping up and the varieties and toppings multiplied. By 1999, the bagel overtook the doughnut in popularity as Americans spent three quarters of a billion dollars a year on bagels compared to only a half billion on doughnuts. In spite of the many varieties of bagels available, the plain bagel remains the most popular, with sesame seed in second place.
Making your own bagels is a bit of a process. The traditional way to make them involves making a yeast dough, letting it rise and punching it down, kneading and hand shaping it, then boiling the bagels before baking, preferably in a stone oven. This results in a chewy crusty bread. Today’s mass produced methods use machines to mix and shape them, steaming replaces boiling, and of course, they are baked in standard commercial ovens. No matter, people still love them!
Bagels have not had a day of their own for very long, having previously shared February 9th with National Pizza Day. In 2019, Thomas’ Bagels, maker of both English muffins and bagels, decided bagels needed their own day and registered a new date of January 15 with Chase’s Calendar of Events, the authority on all the days, weeks and months we celebrate all year. Whatever its origin and the day we celebrate it, it is a good excuse to start your day with a bagel.
For the whole story, read The Bagel The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, by Maria Balinska, an ebook available from the Bellevue University online library
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