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History of the Bagel: The Hole Story

While it's widely agreed that bagels came to the United States from the Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe, experts can't pinpoint the exact origin of the humble bread with the hole in the middle.

One legend has it that the first bagel was born in 1683 when a Viennese baker wanted to pay tribute Polish King Jan III Sobieski for saving the people of Austria from Turkish invaders. Since the king was known to have a passion for riding, the baker made rolls in the shape of a stirrup, known in German as beugel.

In "The Joys of Yiddish," however, Leo Rosten notes that the first printed mention of bagels came even earlier, in 1610, in the Community Regulations of Krakow, Poland. These stated that "bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth." The ring shape may have been seen as a symbol of life.

Whatever its ancestry, the doughnut-shaped roll quickly caught on, becoming a staple among Eastern Europeans. In Yiddish, they were called beygel; in Russian, boobliki; in Polish, obazanki.


Bagels came to New York in the 1880s, with the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews. Vendors used to thread the hole-shaped bread onto dowels and hawk them on street corners.

The pronunciation of the word never changed, but the spelling was Americanized to bagel.

In 1907, the International Bagel Bakers Union was founded in New York City. Members of the elite group, which was only open to sons of union members, fiercely safeguarded the recipe for bagels, which were usually boiled or "kettled" in vats of boiling hot water before baking. Bagel makers traditionally worked in teams of four,
with two men making the dough and shaping the bagels, one boiling them, and the fourth baking them.

Sometime after World War I, Meyer "Mickey" Thompson, the son of a bagel baker in Winnipeg, Canada, started experimenting with a bagel-making machine in his workshop over the family bakery. Over the years, he invented several models, but each had a serious flaw. One was too slow to be commercially viable, another impeded the rising process. A third worked well, but engineers said it would be too
complicated and expensive to build.

In the early 1960s, Thompson's son, Daniel, who had picked up his father's challenge, invented the Thompson Bagel Machine, capable of producing 200 to 400 bagels an hour. The first of these machines was installed in a six-car garage in New Haven, Conn., where Murray Lender was setting up the first frozen bagel business. Within a few years, Lender's bagels were in supermarket freezers around the country. Mass production and distribution of bagels turned the rest of the nation into bagel lovers. By 1988, Americans were eating an average of one bagel per month and in 1993, bagel consumption doubled to an average of one bagel every two weeks, according to the American Bagel Association.

Next: How to Make a Bagel


Holey Bagel: From New York With Love
Born to Bake Bagels
History of the Bagel: The Hole Story
How to Make a Bagel

King Jan III Sobieski of Poland



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