NO ONE KNOWS when the first baker decided to take a pile of gluten flour, add water and yeast to make a dough, fashion the dough into doughnut shapes, dunk them in boiling water and then bake them until they were browned on the outside and chewy beneath the crust. It's still a mystery; the only sure thing is that fire came first. There are those who even challenge the most commonly held bagel notion--that the bagel's origins are Jewish.
Cookbooks and encyclopedias generally credit an unknown Viennese baker with the bagel's beginnings. According to that history, the first bagel rolled into the world in 1683, when a local baker wanted to pay tribute to the king of Poland, Jan Sobietsky. King Jan had just saved the people of Austria from an onslaught of Turkish invaders. Because the king was an avid and accomplished horseman, the baker decided to shape the yeast dough into an uneven circle that resembled a stirrup. The theory has merit on two counts. First, the traditional hand-fashioned bagel remains less than perfect in shape. Lacking the doughnut's symmetry, it skews into a shape aptly described as stirrup-like. Second, the Austrian word for stirrup is beugel .
Another theory? Well, there's the fact that beugen means "to bend" in German; therefore, bagels were invented in Germany.
The Polish explanation sets the birth of the bagel in 1610, in Kracow, Poland, where it was created as a delicacy for Kracow's impoverished Jews, usually resigned to a diet of black bread. Leo Rosten, author of "The Joys of Yiddish," sets the creation of the bagel in 16th-Century Poland. But, he says, bagels then were first made to be given to expectant mothers for good luck during childbirth. The idea was that the bagel signified the never-ending circle of life.
In the book "Menu Mystique," Norman Odya Krohn, discussing Russian bubliki , writes: "This is the name for the original bagel that was made famous in Russian song and rhyme." Held together by string, they were said to have been sold at Russian fairs and were believed to bring good luck.
Wherever it might have first appeared, the bagel's name as we know it today evolved slowly; based on the Yiddish verb beigen , meaning "to bend," the roll with the hole was called a beygel .
The bagel persevered and flourished in Europe for a few centuries before heading for foreign shores. In the United States, the bagel first appeared at Ellis Island, brought by Jewish refugees leaving Eastern Europe shortly after the turn of the 20th Century. However, the destination for most emigrants was New York City, and here the bagel settled. From the Lower East Side to the farthest reaches of the Bronx, Jewish bakers set up shops. Their customers were, for the most part, fellow refugees, whom they provided with the traditional, beloved baked goods from the Old Country: eggy challah , unleavened matzot and, of course, the hardy bagel. Here was born the bagel's reputation as an ethnic deli food.
The bagel baker's life in the old days was far from an idyllic existence. Most of the brick hearth ovens in which the bagels were baked (often at temperatures of 500 degrees) were set up in dark, poorly lit tenement basements that turned into steamy sweatshops as the bagels were dipped in caldrons of boiling water.
The bagel bakers finally moved to street level years later to attract shoppers and expand their businesses, which had been wholesale operations. And in moving up to street facilities, they got added benefits. As one baker put it, "No more floods, no more rats, no more mice."
Making bagels by hand called for hard work and long hours. The average trained benchman, the man who kneaded the dough and made the bagels, could twist them out at the rate of a dozen bagels every minute. Then the oven men took over for the actual baking process. In 1960, a 37-hour week paid about $150, with the chance to earn another $100 in overtime. At 12 bagels per minute, a 37-hour week meant twisting about 25,000 bagels.
The men who made the bagels at that time, according to Ben Greenspan of the Beigel Bakers Union, a local of the American Bakery and Confectionery Workers, were "college students, teachers, lawyers and other professionals" drawn by the plentiful overtime. Young Americans, and not old-world refugees, were learning the bagel trade.
In the early '60s, a bagel sold for 7 cents retail, and a decent-size bakery such as the Tri-Boro Bagel Co. in Fresh Meadows was turning out 140,000 bagels a week. The bagel was still basically a New York City resident at that time, but a family named Lender was already laying the groundwork
that would soon have the bagel available throughout the country.
HARRY LENDER was a baker in Lublin, Poland, in the early 1920s with a wife, Rosie, and children. He decided that there had to be a better world than the one in which he lived, and the United States sounded as though it might be the place for him.