Let's Eat

Bagel or beigel? A new film reveals all

Victoria Prever meets a filmmaker whose new short is all about the roll with a hole


Variety of Authentic New York style bagels with seeds in a paper bag

Bagel or beigel? It’s a perennial point of difference, and when Paul Stewart spotted kosher keyboard warriors on a Jewish Facebook group sparring over this (again) he resolved to discover why we’re so divided.

Paul likes a bit of research. When his son, Graham was young, they popped into Faulkner’s fish and chip shop in Hackney. “I sat him up on the counter so he could see what was going on and he asked me ‘how did the fish get into the shop, Daddy?’”

Three weeks later Stewart senior was clinging onto a North Sea trawler, snapping photographs of fisherman catching cod destined for the fish markets. “The easiest way to explain to him was to photograph them. It was pretty hairy in a force six gale.”

The JFS alumna (now in his sixties) was born in Stepney, raised in Stoke Newington and Finchley and had originally trained as a chef at the former South Bank Polytechnic. He’d fallen in love with food while prepping meals at a youth camp — “I made curried eggs and saffron rice for 20 people at the Woodcraft Folk camp — it was where left-wing Jewish parents sent their kids instead of the Scouts.”

He says catering was in his blood — “One grandfather owned a continental restaurant, and my paternal grandfather had a pickle factory in the East End”. After cooking in St Ives to spend summers by the sea, he veered away from food towards a career in photography — freelancing for newspapers including the Daily Mirror and Sunday People as well as the JC; setting up a news and picture agency and eventually working full-time at the Express as a photographer and picture editor. He also had a parallel career as a recording engineer and record producer, making over 30 albums, mainly psychobilly.

Film was a natural progression from still photographs. As a child, he’d made home movies on a Super Eight. “When video came along, I started making black and white alternative news clips — I was mainly self-taught.”

After his North Sea mission to establish how his son’s cod ended up battered in a box of chips, he made ‘From Lamb to Loom’ — a film following a sheep from its birth to starring as a sweater. He moved to doing films for Government departments — “little films that came through from lobbying groups”.

When a series of films for the Department of Health was cut because of budget issues, he found himself with extensive film equipment and time on his hands.

“The bagel/beigel spat on Facebook had got me thinking and I said to my wife Viv let’s make a film about this.” Nine months later, with a notebook full of research he was ready to roll.

After uncovering the Eastern European roots of our favourite bread, Paul and Viv — also a photographer and the film’s producer — visited me to talk baking basics and international bagel variations. Watch out for my cameo performance filmed in my kitchen.

They then jetted off to the US and Canada to meet families who could be described as bagel royalty. At some iconic bagel bakeries, the current incumbents shared stories of their fathers and grandfathers who brought their shtetl baking skills Stateside and went on to found companies that grew into huge organisations.

Corporations like 700-employee Lender’s bagels, which had been started in 1927 by an immigrant baker from Lublin in Poland who’d arrived unable to read, write and could barely speak English. Son, Marvin Lender says the way they mass-distributed their bagels was via freezer cabinets. “We rode the wave of frozen food and were stocked in every supermarket in the United States.”

Lender shares stories of Meyer (“Micky”) Thompson, who travelled to Los Angeles from Eastern Europe via Hull and Canada. He and his family were looking to increase bagel production in the 1960’s, and son, Dan Thompson (an engineering graduate and schoolteacher) invented a bagel forming machine.

The Thompsons and Lenders initially worked together on this device which, Marvin says “changed the industry”. The Thompson bagel company is still one of the largest manufacturers of bagel-making machines in the world.

After a stop in Jerusalem the journey ends with American, Christopher De Kime’s memories of opening Bagel Mama, a bagel shop in Krakow 20 years ago — unaware of the bagel’s Polish backstory and of the destruction of the bagel bakeries during the Holocaust.

It’s a poignant reminder of the mass destruction which also explains why Paul believes one of our own Brick Lane beigel bakeries can claim to be the oldest in Europe. “It has changed families over the years, but the Beigel shop – the bakery with the yellow fascia — was opened in 1855, and I haven’t been able to find an older one”.

The film, which has won two Awards of Merit in independent film competition, IndieFest provides plenty of food for thought. Watch out for the bagels that went to space, and Paul’s final discovery as to who was right on the beigel/bagel question. Will he spill the beans? “You’ll have to watch the film to find out the answer” he tells me.

More than a Roll with a Hole: the stellar rise of the bagel premieres at The Jewish Museum on February 22 with a free bagel for every ticket holder and a Q and A session with Paul Stewart after the film.

Tickets are available at (ticket price includes a bagel to be picked up on the night)

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