Bagel and a Schmear


As ubiquitous as the bagel is today, for most parts of the country outside of New York City, it’s really only a mid-century modern food.   For example, in Cincinnati, it wasn’t until 1969, when the New York franchise Hot Bagels brought the delicious food to our city, and then sold out to the Catholic owned Marx’s Hot Bagels.   And, the bagel certainly came without all the flavors of bagel and cream cheese that we have at our fingertips today.   You might have seen poppyseed or sesame seed, but certainly not cinnamon raison or jalapeno cheddar.

It was Harry Lender and his son Murray, who experimented with automation and freezing of bagels, who are responsible for the birth of the bagel nation.   It was Lender’s Bagels that many of us saw first on grocery shelves in the late 60’s and early 70’s.   So for us GenXers, it’s really only a food that’s been around in our lifetime.

Now it seems like you can’t go anywhere without seeing a Panera, Brueggers, or even a local bakery that makes the hole-in-the-center, boiled and then baked delicacies.  But before mid-century it was doughnuts, pastries, and coffee cakes that ruled the breakfast roost.

And, it’s the large Eastern European Jewish immigrant communities that we have to thank for our beloved bagels.   They came in hoards to New York City in the 1880s and took with them their bagel.   But, what would become the scrumptious schmear that now automatically comes with the bagel, cream cheese, had an earlier start in the United States.

In 1872 New York dairyman, William A Lawrence had experimented with mixing cream and milk, inventing cream cheese.   However, cream cheese wasn’t largely accessible until Lithuanian Jewish immigrant brothers Isaac and Joseph Breakstone mass produced their brand of cream cheese in the 1920s.   They had started their dairy in 1880 on Manhatten’s lower east side, where all the European immigrants, Jewish and Gentile mixed.   It’s not known when the Jewish community married cream cheese with their beloved bagel, but it was destiny – like peanut butter and jelly, like macaroni and cheese.

Cream cheese was much like the soft cheeses of Eastern Europe with which immigrants were already familiar.   Slicing a bagel and schmearing it between halves made the bagel like a cheese knish – an already beloved Jewish pastry.   But with the bagel, it was a chewier bite. And, it gave the possibility of an endless amount of flavors to incorporate into the cream cheese. Who knew back then we would have bacon cream cheese as a possiblility!

The origin of the bagel itself is credited to Poland.   One nativity story says it was created in 1683 by an anonymous baker in a stirrup shape to commemorate the victory of Poland’s King John III Sobieski over the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Vienna.

But others say it was created much earlier in Krakow, Poland, as a competitor to the obwarzanek, a lean bread of wheat flour designed for Lent.   There is reference in 1610 in the “Community Relations” of Krakow that ‘beigels’ were given to women as a gift after childbirth.     There is record of them being given out at Jewish bris or circumcisions as a symbol.   Consider that the next time you take a bite out of your next bagel!

But even older ancestors of the bagel exist. The Italian ciambella ring bread is immortalized in 17th century royal portraits.   Then there’s another regional variant from Puglia, called the tarallo, a medieval and more dense version. The Roman buccellatum is a possible ancestor, but going back even further, Muslin Uigars in China were baking the girde, and trading them on the silk road.

Whatever the proper bagel genealogy, the bagel started turning up in New York sometime before the turn of the 20th century. The Bagel Bakers Union 338 was a union established in New York City in the early 1900s by the primary handcraftsman of New York bagels.   Early bagels established by the union were hand made and weighed 2-3 ounces.   Fast forward to the 1990s and most bagels were double that in size.     The union controlled the bagel industry until the 1960s when automation took over and the bagel nation was born.

In Cincinnati, our favorite bagel shop, and the only one endorsed by the Jewish Federation as kosher approved, is Marx Hot Bagels. It’s run by a guy who some say is saltier than his bagels.   But below his crusty exterior, much like the bagel, is a tender, caring man, who was also extended the distinguished award of ‘Righteous Gentile’ by the Jewish community.


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