‘Bagels can change your perspective on history’

We speak to Maria Balinska, who has written a book on the rise of the roll.

By Alex Kasriel, December 18, 2008

There are few people in this world — coeliacs excepted — who do not enjoy a bagel with cream cheese and a slice of smoked salmon. But one woman’s love of the roll with the hole became so all-consuming that she wrote a book about its history.

The Bagel: the surprising History of a Modest Bread by Maria Balinska picks out the first ever reference to the bagel — made in Yiddish in 1610 by the Jewish Council of Krakow in Poland. The book begins with a look at its boiled, baked and ring-shaped ancestor in southern Italy and goes on to follow its progress to New York and the UK via Eastern Europe.

“The ring was a lot thinner and the whole thing was a lot bigger,” says BBC broadcaster Ms Balinska, 48, who used photographs of bagels from the 20th century and paintings from the 19th century to trace the history. “The dough tends to be braided. Of course they were a lot harder. A Polish peasant girl is quoted saying that she loved how bagels ‘crunched gaily between your teeth’.”

But how did New Jersey-raised Balinska, who had never tasted a bagel until she was a student, become so interested in them? “It became something of an obsession,” says Balinska, for whom bagels ended up as a staple when she was a student at Princeton University. She later spent a year in Krakow, studying Polish language and culture during a postgraduate scholarship. “I saw this thing, the obwarzanek, which looked more like a pretzel and harder than a bagel. I was sufficiently intrigued to find out more.”

Back in the States, Balinska — who has a part Polish, part Jewish heritage — was working at what was then known as the Institute of Jewish Affairs, when she began to take her research more seriously.

“I remember spending one afternoon in the New York Public Library in the 1980s,” she says. “I called up various books that had bagels in the title. Colleagues used to joke about me doing a book that would be full of bagel facts.”

She thinks the bagel can tell us a lot about the past. “A foodstuff like the bagel can actually change your perspective on history,” insists Balinska. “The bagel is linked with New York history, business history and trade union history. That was one of my motivations for writing the book. It was also a way of looking at another part of my heritage. I think food history is fascinating because it gets us to the level of the everyday. I have spent most of my career at the BBC doing news documentary and current affairs and trying to be innovative in covering foreign affairs, bringing complicated things down to a human level. The bagels are my characters. The techniques and approaches are similar to the ones I work with.”

Balinska suspects that the fashion for bagels with smoked salmon arose in the US, where salmon supplies are plentiful. And in Poland she says they were dipped in tea to soften them up.

“There were some people I spoke to in Poland who would have had bagels in the 1920s and 30s,” says Balinska, who lives with her husband and three-year-old daughter in north London.

“They recall the taste, the chewiness and the satisfied feeling you get when eating a bagel. They went stale quicker of course. The flour was different in those days. Some flours have additives today.”

While we all love their combination of crunchy and chewy, are they actually any good for us? “If you don’t smother them in cream cheese, they’re a healthy option, in the sense that there’s no fat in them,” says Balinska. “They are high in gluten which gives you energy. They may be high in refined carbohydrates but compared to other breakfast options like muffins, pancakes or croissants, they are healthier.

“In 1970s America, when people were trying to convince consumers not to eat processed bread, one of the things they recommended were bagels as they’re not as highly processed — unless you’re talking about the industrially made ones which are preserved to make them last longer.”
Balinska also warns against bagels that are not hand rolled but made into rings using machinery. “The stainless steel is harder on the dough than the warmth of the oil from hands,” she says, adding that bakers guard their dough recipes fiercely.

In the US, Balinska gets her supplies from Ross and Daughters in Queen’s. And she has a favourite bagel bakery in London.

“I have not tried every bagel place but I go to Carmelli in Golders Green. They’re nice and warm,” she says, adding: “I like the atmosphere in there. The other place I like is Ronnie’s in West Hampstead, but it’s not as easy to park.” Surely this iconic bread ring is worth the occasional parking fine.

The hole truth

The predecessor of the bagel is a ring shaped bread called tarallo from Puglia, in southern Italy.
The first mention of the word bagel was in a 17th-century Yiddish document from Krakow.
Bagels were traditionally eaten on the night before Tisha B’Av with hard boiled eggs rolled in ash.
A good hand roller could roll 700-800 bagels an hour (one every five seconds)
In 1950s America, one bagel cost five cents. Today a bagel will cost $1.50 each.
The wheat that is used to give the bagel its elasticity is particularly high in gluten.
The bagel has disputed origins but could come from the Yiddish word beygn, which means to bend.

The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, published by Yale University Press at £12.55

Last updated: 1:50pm, December 18 2008