Jewish Food Nosh News

Bagels: Cuisine and Culture

To butter a bagel
You need to finagle
Just to inveigle
The slithering spread
To the edge of the bread

That’s Alma Denny waxing poetic about the food that has conquered bakeries, supermarkets and waistlines everywhere. More than just a piece of dough that’s boiled and then baked, the bagel has a special place in Jewish culture, history and even humour.
With origins steeped in controversy, the bagel, as we know it seems to date to the 17th century. (And some taste like it.) Leo Rosten suggests in his book “The Joys of Yiddish” that the first time the bagel is mentioned in print is in the Community Regulations of Kracow for 1610. The food was given to women in childbirth since the circular shape was seen to represent the life cycle and an omen of good luck.” The word is derived from the German word beugel, meaning a round loaf of bread. There are those who dispute this and claim that it derives from the middle High German word ‘bügel,’ which means a twisted or curved bracelet or ring…” []
Elsewhere, we are told of a Viennese baker in 1683 “who wanted to pay tribute to Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland. King Jan had just saved the people of Austria from an onslaught of Turkish invaders. The King was a great horseman, and the baker decided to shape the yeast dough into an uneven circle resembling a stirrup (or ‘beugal’).” []
But wait there’s more. Some of the best online periodicals have devoted thousands of words to the delicacy. At, you can read about the Secret History of Bagels. [] And over at, food writer Joan Nathan has penned a “Short History of the Bagel.” []
Donna Gabaccia says bagels tell us a lot about business, culture and the American immigrant experience. The social historian follows the bagel from its entry into the U.S. in the 1890s and “its transformation from a Jewish specialty into an American food.” Along the way, she points out some fascinating ironies such as the affinity between bagels and cream cheese, “a product introduced and developed by English Quakers in their settlements in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia in the 18th century.” []
Did you know that eating bagels can be hazardous to your health? And I’m not talking about calories. According to the head of the Department of Emergency Services at George Washington Hospital in Washington, DC, the greatest under-reported injury is hand cuts from slicing bagels. Peggy Trowbridge Filippone has accumulated some great bagel trivia, lore and advice on her Home Cooking site. She shares how to cut bagels safely (don’t use acrylic holders) and how to store bagels. “At room temperature in plastic bags or freeze immediately. Refrigeration hastens staleness.” []
Eating bagels can pose other risks as Elizabeth Mort found out the hard way. After the New Castle, Pennsylvania woman gave birth last year, her baby was taken away when opiates were found in the mother’s blood. According to Mort, the source of the false positive was the poppy seed bagel she ate shortly before giving birth. Baby Isabella was returned after five days in foster care. The American Civil Liberties Union is filing suit on behalf of the angry parents. []
For some people, the bagel is a constant temptation. Do I indulge or not? Here is a tale of one person who felt it would be best to test his resolve while foregoing bagels’ calories completely.
“A man opens an outdoor stall to sell bagels and puts up a sign, ‘50¢ each.’ A jogger runs past and puts 50 cents into the bucket but doesn’t take a bagel. The next day, he does the same thing. For weeks and then months, this goes on. One day, as he’s jogging past, the owner joins step with him. The jogger laughs and says, ‘I know why you’re here. You want to know why I always put money in the bucket and never take a bagel.’ ‘No,’ says the owner, ‘not that. I just want to tell you that the bagels have gone up to 60 cents.’” []

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at

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