The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread

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If smoked salmon and cream cheese bring only one thing to mind, you can count yourself among the world’s millions of bagel mavens. But few people are aware of the bagel’s provenance, let alone its adventuresome history. This charming book tells the remarkable story of the bagel’s journey from the tables of seventeenth-century Poland to the freezers of middle America today, a story of often surprising connections between a cheap market-day snack and centuries of Polish, Jewish, and American history.

Research in international archives and numerous personal interviews uncover the bagel’s links with the defeat of the Turks by Polish King Jan Sobieski in 1683, the Yiddish cultural revival of the late nineteenth century, and Jewish migration across the Atlantic to America. There the story moves from the bakeries of New York’s Lower East Side to the Bagel Bakers’ Local 388 Union of the 1960s, and the attentions of the mob. For all its modest size, the bagel has managed to bridge cultural gaps, rescue kings from obscurity, charge the emotions, and challenge received wisdom. Maria Balinska weaves together a rich, quirky, and evocative history of East European Jewry and the unassuming ring-shaped roll the world has taken to its heart.

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Editorial Reviews

Slate - Joan Nathan

"A fascinating topic and one that Maria Balinska treats superbly. . . . I especially admire her scholarship, lively prose and tireless reportorial digging."—Joan Nathan, Moment
Forward - Glenn C. Altschuler

"A charming history of the roll with a hole, ranging across three centuries and two continents."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Forward
National Jewish Post & Opinion - Morton I. Teicher

"A delightful book that will enchant and educate its readers."—Morton I. Teicher, National Jewish Post & Opinion
New York Times - Mervyn Rothstein

"The book, thought-provoking and fact-filled, is one that also uses the bagel as a way of viewing Polish-Jewish history."—Mervyn Rothstein, New York Times
New York Times - Sam Roberts

"[A] scrumptious little book. . . . The cover alone would whet any New Yorker's weekend appetite."— Sam Roberts, New York Times
Wall Street Journal - Dara Horn

"Balinska gives readers plenty to chew on. . . . Thoroughly entertaining.”—Dara Horn, Wall Street Journal

The American Scholar - Sandra M. Gilbert

"[A] gem of culinary and social reportage." — Sandra M. Gilbert, The American Scholar

"A good addition to the field of culinary history. . . . This witty, readable, deeply researched book deserves to be read. . . . Recommended."—Choice
Canadian Jewish News - Sheldon Kirshner

"Charming and scholarly."— Sheldon Kirshner, Canadian Jewish News
The Scotsman - Michael Kerrigan

‘[The bagel has] found a fresh and lively chronicler in Maria Balinska, who seems as much at home with the bagel’s Polish and Jewish past as with its all-American present … Light and piquant, and yet at the same time seriously satisfying, The Bagel is anything but stodgy fare.’ - Michael Kerrigan, The Scotsman

Guardian - Steven Poole

". . . [A] history of and love-letter to Jewish culture. . . . ranges stylishly from the lifting of the siege of Vienna . . . through . . . the Nazi ghettos . . . to the post-war New York bagel-baking unions and the gradual transformation of the bagel into an 'all-American' food." — Steven Poole, Guardian


"A good addition to the field of culinary history. . . . This witty, readable, deeply researched book deserves to be read. . . . Recommended."—Choice
Publishers Weekly

From the Italian ciambella in a 17th-century portrait of a young prince to the 1959 album Bagels and Bongos by pianist Irving Fields, journalist and BBC radio editor Balinska traces the cultural identity of a New York City icon from its humble beginnings in Poland to the freezer section of American supermarkets. Balinska's own interest in the bagel began with a year spent in Warsaw, Poland, as a graduate student, where she learned that her "own family history was relevant to that of the bagel." She then unearths a plethora of little-known facts about this breakfast staple, recounting its role in children's nursery rhymes, Poland's economic crisis of 1929, even its place in a McCall's magazine spread in 1963 next to Shirley Temple where the magazine encouraged its readers to "Join the stars below in this salute to Manhattan's most popular breakfast-bagels and lox." While the book may be too dry for the run-of-the- mill bagel lover, academics and dedicated foodies will appreciate Balinska's considerable research as well as her forays into the late 19th-century Jewish immigrant experience and American pop culture. Photos. (Nov.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Though the bagel is a diminutive food, its impact on culture, culinary arts, philosophy, and politics has been considerable.Balinska, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, traces the history of the bagel from its mysterious beginnings through several centuries of Polish history, the Holocaust, and American labor history, to its emergence into popular culture and current ubiquity across the world. Balinska seamlessly transitions from the serious to the frivolous, taking the reader from the Jewish ghetto of German-occupied Warsaw to the madcap marketing extravaganzas of Lender's Bagels-including a mock wedding of bagels and cream cheese held in the 1970s in upstate New York. Entertaining and engaging, this title gracefully and energetically reveals how the bagel, once clearly identified with eastern European Jewish life, became a cultural touchstone-which now has been firmly integrated into the everyday American experience. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Courtney Greene

The Barnes & Noble Review
Journalist Maria Balinska is so smitten with her topic that she's as heartfelt describing the 1980s "holey war" between Lender's and Sara Lee for dominance of the American frozen-bagel market as she is recounting the tragic fate of Jewish bakers in Nazi-occupied Poland. While she traces the bagel's possible Chinese and Italian roots, her quirky cultural history really begins in Poland, where the bread product had prestige in the 17th century but was a symbol of destitution in the 20th, when impoverished bagel peddlers were a common sight on street corners until the Holocaust devastated the country's Jewish population. Many of the Jews who escaped Europe before the war ended up on New York City's Lower East Side, bringing the bagel with them. Balinska argues that while Jewish bakers are not as celebrated in American labor history as their counterparts in the garment industry, they played a significant role in promoting workers' rights. In the decades following WWII, the well-paid, skilled hand rollers lost their clout as bagel making, inevitably, became mechanized. By the time the savvy Lender brothers introduced their mass-produced product -- which many aficionados don't consider a bagel at all -- the stage was set for the bagel, like many Jews themselves, to "shed its ethnicity" and "become all-American." Balinska's captivating story concludes, ironically enough, back in Poland, where the bagel has recently returned "not as a Jewish favorite but as the embodiment of an envied American way of life." --Barbara Spindel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300112290
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/20/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 7.32 (w) x 5.70 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Maria Balinska is editor of BBC Radio’s World Current Affairs department, and a journalist and documentary maker specializing in Eastern Europe and the United States. She lives in London.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgements Note to Readers Introduction Ch. 1 The Family Tree 1 Ch. 2 Of Bagels and Kings 20 Ch. 3 Rituals, Rhymes and Revolutions: How the Bagel Lost its Worth but Kept its Value 44 Ch. 4 Bagel Polemics in an Independent Poland 69 Ch. 5 Boiling Over: The Immigrant Bagel and the Struggle for Workers' Rights 96 Ch. 6 'Kings of the Line': The Story of Bagel Bakers' Union Local No. 338 120 Ch. 7 The 'Bagelising' of America 148 Postscript 180 Notes 196 Further Reading 206 Index 211
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2009

    The title shows a relationship to a varity of foods.

    The history of the Bagel I found very interesting, not knowing where it had originated. The author's description and how it all started I found very intriging. The author also included history of the country where it all started and how it became so popular in the United States. I would recommend this to anyone interested in a variety of foods.

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