Essentially a ‘roll with a hole’, evidence suggests that the first ever ‘bagels’ may date as far back as ancient Egypt and early Mediterranean civilization. Historians believe that there were two original versions of the bagel: soft and covered with sesame seeds, and crispy and pretzel-like, similar to Syrian breadsticks, or kaak.
A different theory supposes that the first modern bagel was created in 17th century Poland as a tribute to King John III Sobieski after he saved Austria from Turkish invaders at the Battle of Vienna. King Sobieski had many Jewish allies, thus it was proposed that Jewish bakers dedicated this staple food to him. This has, however, since been debunked as an urban legend according to Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread.
In an interview with The New York Times, Balinska uncovered her theory that the bagel is the ‘cousin’ of the pretzel, a culinary tradition that may have been a staple amongst medieval Jewish bakers in Germany prior to their migration to Poland. The bagel’s predecessor, the obwarzanek (also known as the bublik), was already prominent at the Polish royal court; thus ‘the first known reference to the bagel among Jews in Poland…was found in regulations issued in Yiddish in 1610 by the Jewish Council of Krakow.’ Historians propose that the origin of the word ‘bagel’ is rooted in the Yiddish word, beigin, meaning ‘to bend.’
During the 19th century, New York saw a stark increase in Eastern European immigration, and with these new residents came both cultural and culinary traditions. The bagel was once considered a delicacy, exclusively prepared by the sons of bakers. Bagel production increased in the mid-20th century when new technology allowed for the simultaneous preparation of 200 to 600 bagels at a time. By 1980, bagels were fully integrated into the daily lives of New Yorkers, as they had made their way into grocery stores across the city via mass production.
As bagel consumption increased, there was a clear demand for local venues specializing in this up-and-coming breakfast trend. Thus, New York City saw the rise of speciality bagel stores such as H & H Bagels – one of the first in the market. Originally located on the Upper East Side, H & H began in 1972 when founders Helmer Toro and Hector Hernandez decided to open a venue exclusively dedicated to bagels. Despite only one location remaining and new owners, New York still claims the bagel as its own.
The ‘New York bagel’ may be constant, but new bagel trends continue to introduce themselves; we’ve graduated from the classics to inventive flavors like blueberry and spicy jalapeño. Bagels will always be associated with New York City culture, but they, like us, are steeped in a rich immigrant history.