Friday, January 1, 2010

The New York Bagel

The dictionary defines the etymology: "Yiddish beygl, from Middle High German *böugel ring, from bouc ring, from Old High German; akin to Old English bēag ring, būgan to bend" (Webster's).

The Atlantic describes its history: "The bagel's known history goes back at least a good six centuries, and, in practice, probably more than that. While we know them in the here-and-now of 21st-century America, the bagel's likely rollout to the world probably began in Poland. In her excellent new book, The Bagel: the Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Maria Balinska shares a couple theories of their origin.

"Balinska first suggests the possibility that they came East to Poland from Germany as part of a migration flow during the 14th century. At the time, pretzels (the thick bread of the German variety, not the American kind that comes in plastic bags) were making their way out of their original home in the monasteries and being made into readily available
feast day bread. German immigrants, brought to Poland to help provide people power for building the economy (immigration was then encouraged, not discouraged), brought the pretzels with them. In Poland, that theory goes, the German breads morphed into a round roll with a hole in the middle that came to be known in Poland as an obwarzanek. Written records of them appear as early as the 14th century.

"They gained ground when then Queen Jadwiga, known for her charity and piety, opted to eat obwarzanek during Lent in lieu of the more richly flavored breads and pastries she enjoyed the rest of the year. While that might seem like quite a step in the context of Marie Antoinette's later 'let them eat cake' comments, take note that, although Jadwiga was apparently pretty down-to-earth as queens go, obwarzanek at that time wasn't exactly the kind of inexpensive street food that bagels became a few centuries later.

"Lent, then as now, was, of course,
a period during which devout Christians consciously chose deprivation -- but what constitutes 'deprivation' is relative. What the queen chose for her daily bread was, at the time, actually rather costly, as it was made from wheat, which was not cheap. Most Poles at that time could barely afford the cheaper, coarser breads from rye flour, so white wheat was pretty much off the table for all but the wealthy. Obwarzanek was primarily the province of princes, nobles, and men and women of means, but generally not for the poor.

"Still one other version dates the first
bagels to the late 17th century in Austria, saying that bagels were invented in 1683 by a Viennese baker trying to pay tribute to the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski. The king had led Austria (and hence Poland as well, since it was part of the empire) in repelling invading Turkish armies. Given that the king was famous for his love of horses, the baker decided to shape his dough into a circle that looked like a stirrup -- or beugel in German."

I say: if bread is the staff of life, then the New York bagel is the quintessence of that staff. Sturdy, yeasty, seedy, doughy, crunchy, chewy -- the bagel is the delicious bread-ring of life.

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