The Bagel: A Starchy Symbol of History, Economy, and Culture in New York City

Emily Allen

“I’ll take one plain and one everything bagel, toasted with cream cheese” – a simple phrase recognizable to most any New Yorker. New Yorkers grab bagels on their way to work, school, and shopping from street carts or coffee shops. While New Yorkers chomp away at the bagels they hold so dear, they rarely consider the historical and cultural gravity their breakfast carries. This small bakery product seems so mainstream that its historical importance is often under-celebrated. Within this circular bread exists a saga of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who, living in terrible conditions, sold their traditional food as a means of survival. The bagel’s tale is entwined with early-20th century immigration and economics. Its story has not ended, as the bagel prevails today as a popular product not only in Jewish culture, but also in non-Jewish, New York, and American culture. Though it may seem unassuming, the bagel symbolizes New York City’s history of Jewish immigration.

The bagel, an archetypal Jewish food, is produced by a unique process as distinctive as its history. The name itself comes from the Yiddish term “beygel” meaning a ring or bracelet, as the bagel is a round pastry with a central hole (Deustch and Saks 20). The dough, denser than that of most other bread, is shaped into rings by hand or machine. The circular dough is rinsed and then placed into boiling water for less than a minute before being placed in an oven to bake. The rinsing and boiling combination provides the chewy texture of the bagel. The shiny exterior is due to the last step in the bagel-making process, in which the outer crust is brushed with eggs or sugar. Toppings and flavorings can be added to the finished product or baked into the dough itself (Davidson 53).

Although there is much folklore surrounding the creation of the bagel, no single anecdote explains its emergence. The first written records of bagels occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this time, Poland cultivated grain in its fertile land and supplied it to the rest of Eastern Europe. Due to Eastern’s Europe high demand for a cheap source of grain, Poland’s economy flourished and marked a period of great success for Polish Jews. The commodity of grain, especially rye, oats, and wheat, elevated Poland to the center of all things bread-related in Europe (Balinska). The bagel was brought to Manhattan, and America, with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The first wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration began in the late 1880s, when a series of pogroms in the Russian Empire forced Jews to seek religious asylum. These pogroms targeted Jews and further separated them from the European social sphere. Following the pogroms, mobs destroyed Jewish property in Ukraine, which caused the Jewish community to fear for their safety. Finally, the Easter Day pogrom in Kishniev in April of 1903 convinced those who had not yet been convinced that leaving was the only option. Thousands of Jews abandoned their lives and homes in Poland, the Ukraine, and the Russian Empire to seek refuge in America. However, their aspirations for the American Dream were fraught (Feigunbaum).

The dire socioeconomic conditions in New York City caused the development of the bagel industry. Upon their arrival, Jewish families could not afford anything but tenements, often housing several families without running water or electricity. Jewish immigrants flocked to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The close proximity of people in the Jewish ghetto, often called the 10th ward, was extreme, but held a practical purpose. The conglomeration of Jews in the same neighborhood allowed for an assurance of religious community and kosher practices. However, the high population confined to a meager amount of space meant that every resource required competition. There were not nearly enough jobs available, so immigrants were forced to take any employment they could find. This employment often entailed unsafe conditions, low wages, and child labor, adding to the plight of immigrant life. Even those who had previously been scholars were reduced to sweatshop labor (Balinska). At this time, welfare and other social programs had not yet been established, so the responsibility of everyone’s survival fell on the shoulders of members of the Jewish community. In their desperation for work and nostalgia for the old country, Jewish immigrants created opportunity. They supplied a traditional comfort food to a downtrodden population desiring any tangible link to their home. Cheap to produce and easy to transport, the bagel provided provided a simple and easy business plan. Due to the lack of water and space needed to cook in tenements, the traditionally private practice of bagel baking moved out of the home and into a commercialized market (Feigunbaum).

The bagel created not only an informal economy essential to the survival of many immigrant families, but one that fostered unionization that gave immigrants a voice and a viable role in their new country. The bagel economy exploded with the influx of Jewish immigrants, with 70 bagel bakeries opening in the Lower East Side by 1900 (Balinska). The competition caused by this high number of bakeries led to a rise in an informal economy, which was constituted by underemployed people such as street hawkers, peddlers, and petty traders. These jobs, while undesirable at best, presented a method for survival. As the population and competition for sales grew, so did the sector of those turning to the informal economy to support themselves. Those who could work in the formal economy, that is, bagel bakers with formal training and payment, did not have a much better lot. The conditions of the bakeries became so deplorable that a union movement arose to address them. Most bakeries were underground shops with boiling ovens and no ventilation. Workers were forced to work half-naked due to the heat and 98-hour workweeks to fulfill the never-ending demand for bagels. Cockroaches, rats, and diseases ran rampant.

Although most immigrating Jews did not want to start a revolution, the poor conditions and struggle for a meager living sparked a union movement that led to a thriving industry. Soon, several unions, including the United Hebrew Trades and a New York sector of the Journeymen Bakers’ and Confectioners’ International, began with a call for social justice. The union members united as helpless immigrants in a foreign land, and they needed to transform their economy into one that benefitted them and integrated them into New York’s larger economy. Their efforts were not in vain: Conditions improved greatly and the bagel industry flourished. By 1986, bagel sales reached $500 million, solidifying bagels as an integral part of the American food economy and culture. In its rise, the bagel symbolizes the Jewish immigrant population’s struggle for prosperity and identity in New York City’s economy (Balinksa).

The bagel has transformed from a symbol of Jewish immigrant culture to an iconic New York City food. The bagel is considered a secular food because it is not integral in any religious traditions. However, it does have a close connection with Yom Kippur, which is the holiest holiday of the Jewish calendar. During the services of Yom Kippur, the bagel is served with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon slices), which is the traditional way to serve and eat bagels. Interestingly, even nonobservant and non-practicing Jews partake in the breakfast staple of bagels and lox as faithfully as strictly traditional Jews (Deutscsh and Saks 20). By 1987, bagel consumption reached more than six million a day, which poses the question of why the bagel gained so much popularity in its short time in America. Perhaps, the communal aspect of eating is a language in itself. Integrating new cultures into the melting pot of America is accomplished more easily by eating a culture’s traditions rather than by speaking about them. As a New York Times article claimed, Americans eat bagels to establish an ethnic rapport, as demonstrated in the creation of green bagels for St. Patricks’s day. Using a distinctly Jewish food for an Irish holiday illustrates that America are happy to blend ethnic foods (Starr A38). New York holds a diverse range of ethnic foods, furthering its position as one of the world’s great cultural crossroads. Today, the bagel is an iconic New York food, enjoyed by New Yorkers and tourists, the Jewish and non-Jewish alike (Deustch and Saks 20).

The bagel’s history has been a long and involved saga of trial and triumph, including the bagel integration and symbolism in New York City’s everyday life. The bagel is an ethnic fusion of traditional Jewish and American culture, a shared language between the two minority and majority groups. Precisely what caused the bagel to achieve its symbolic status is not entirely certain. Perhaps the bagel’s resilience in migration, economy, and tradition is a reflection of its makers’ resilience in their fight for freedom and prosperity. Perhaps, just as America represents freedom and prosperity, the bagel represents the freedom to succeed and the method to achieve that prosperity.

Works Cited

Balinska, Maria. The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008. Print.

Deutsch, Jonathan and Rachel D. Saks. Jewish American Food Culture. London: Greenwood Press, 2008. Print.

Davidson, Alan. “Bagel.” The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford, 1999. 53. Print.

Starr, Roger. “The Bagel as a Second Language: Ethnic Foods Become the Real Melting Pot.” New York Times 18 Sep. 1987. Print.

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