The humble bagel is a breakfast staple in homes across the United States and one of our most popular selections right here in Knoxville. Whether slathered in cream cheese, dotted with butter and jam or eaten plain, bagels are a tasty treat. There’s also fierce debate on the perfect bagel, with people across the country all claiming to make the very best bagels (we’ll throw our hat in the ring too!).
However, the simple bread’s origin and history in the United States tends to get overlooked in the quest to find the perfect bread. While most people will agree that the key to a great bagel a great crust with a chewy interior, how did it get that way? Food history is one of the most overlooked aspects of the historical timeline, and we think bagels deserve to be front and center. Read on to learn about the complex history of the bagel and how it become a staple on breakfast tables across the country.
We’re going to start out with the most repeated story. One day, a lowly baker in Vienna wanted to make a bread tribute to Jan Sobieski III, the late 17th century King of Poland. King Jan had saved the Austrians from Turkish invaders, so it makes sense that the people of Austria would want to celebrate the hero. Knowing the king’s deep love of horses, the baker made a yeast dough with a circle in the middle, dubbing his new creation the beugel (Austrian for “stirrup”). King Jan loved the bagel so much that it became a go-to for his breakfasts and that of his people as well.
Of course, we hate to get in the way of a good story, but the bagel’s existence is documented well before King Jan was even a glimmer in his father’s eye. Researchers believe the bagel was actually created from pretzel dough sometime around the 1200s. As Germans migrated to Poland, they brought pretzels with them. The Jewish Poles quickly adopted this new bread, put a hole in the middle and dubbed it obwarzanek.
In the 1200s, the Jewish people weren’t allowed to bake bread. This was due to the ties between bread and the sacrament. Poland was considered relatively progressive when it came to the land’s Jewish population, and Jews were allowed to work with bread. However, this was also met with backlash, so Jews adopted or invented (historians differ) bagels due to the boiling process.
In the late-1300s, Poland acquired its first female ruler, Queen Jadwiga, a precocious and kind 10-year-old. Known for her charitable actions and kindness to peasants, Jadwiga was beloved by her people. One year for Lent, Jadwiga decided to opt for obwarzanek over sweet breads and pastries. While obwarzanek wasn’t a cheap bread readily enjoyed by the peasantry, it did put her in a good light, and people attempted to purchase the white flour the recipe required when they were able to.
A Modern History of the Bagel Bakery
Bagels would eventually become known as a street food in Poland and were associated with the working class. In the early 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see vendors selling bagels with loaves of bread, hot peas, smoked herring and assorted fruits. Warsaw’s Jewish population saw bagel-selling as a last resort, selling each little chewy delight in exchange for a few pennies.
However, there were more upscale bagel bakeries/cafes where young Jewish philosophers, activists and radicals would meet to discuss political ideas. These bagel bakeries became popular relatively quickly as a place to talk and relax. People of all ages and backgrounds would step in to buy a bagel or two and simply listen to what these individuals were talking about.
Eventually, bagels made their way over to the United States where they became known as a Jewish food. These first bagels weren’t exactly the slightly sweet and tangy, soft creations we associate them with. Instead, they were smaller with a definite crunch. You can still find these original bagels, but they’re not what most people expect (although, they’re still quite tasty!). The bagel, as with many ‘ethnic’ foods, was hidden from many until the 1970s.
In the early 70s, ethnic food became a staple, and bagels were pushed as the “Jewish English Muffin” by Lender’s Bagels, who marketed frozen bagels to non-Jewish populations. These bagels were far removed from their traditional bagel predecessors, being steamed instead of boiled, rolled by machines for a uniform look and more akin to a pastry.
By 1984, the company had done so well that they were purchased by Kraft Foods (the owners of Philadelphia cream cheese). The bagel industry as we know it was born, with Kraft going so far as to stage a mock wedding between Phyl (a tub of cream cheese) and Len (an 8-foot bagel). By the 90s, bagels became a multibillion-dollar industry, surpassing the doughnut in popularity for breakfast food supremacy.
How to Enjoy Your Bagel
Bagel snobs will consider this blasphemous, but we think how you like your bagel is a completely personal choice. Whether you enjoy your bagel dunked in a coffee, latte or espresso, slathered with cream cheese or dripping in butter and jam is completely up to you—as long as you have the bagel you love. Each member of our team at K Brew has a different way of eating their perfect bagel, but we are dedicated to providing you with the perfect starting point—a fresh, delicious bagel made the right way. Next time you bite into your bagel, consider its long and colorful history! Click here to learn about K Brew’s history in Knoxville.