Bagels Change Lives
Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna talks about how bagels how transformed American lives.
A wrong bagel order may have ruined her day. On the morning of Sept. 13, the day of the New York state primary, democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon walked from her apartment to Zabar’s deli on the Upper West side of Manhattan, where she made the grave mistake of ordering cream cheese and lox on a cinnamon raisin bagel. It is considered taboo to mix sweet and sour in this case, and reporters and patrons inside were aghast. Later, after many in the press dubbed the incident “Bagel-Gate,” Nixon felt compelled to defend her order, telling the New York Times, “I’m stunned. This is my bagel of choice for a few decades now. It’s never been public knowledge, and I really am fascinated that people are so emotional about it.”
Perhaps Nixon could have avoided the entire kerfuffle if she had spoken to Professor Jonathan Sarna (NEJS) beforehand. Sarna is an expert in American Jewish History, and this knowledge naturally extends to bagels. In an interview with the Justice, Sarna explained how bagels came to the United States and how these circles of dough have gone from being considered an ethnic food to a ubiquitous presence.
Though the origins of the bagel elude historians, Sarna believes that bagels were first made by Jews in the 1500s in present-day Poland. Because bagels must be cooked at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, Sarna believes that it is hard to imagine oven technology capable of baking bagels much before then. “It’s not at all clear that what they called a bagel back then is the same thing you would get at Einstein’s,” he said. Ultimately, he said, “A certain kind of bagel from certain places in Europe finds its way to the U.S.”
The Murray Lender family of New Haven is credited with popularizing this bread product in the U.S. during the 1960s when they began mass-producing frozen bagels for supermarkets. Sarna explained that bagels with lox and cream cheese is a purely American innovation, made after the Second World War. “It’s very recent — I know that shocks people,” he chuckled, adding that “people thought there must have been bagels, lox and cream cheese at Mt. Sinai after the giving of the 10 commandments.” He also mentioned an interesting thesis that Jews would put lox on their bagels because it resembled the bacon non-Jews liked to eat on Sundays. “Maybe it would give the Jews a sense of eating the forbidden food without breaking Kosher law,” he mused.
Sarna pointed out that bagels are most common in cities with large Jewish populations such as New York City and Los Angeles. “Bagels have become a food that American Jews unite around in a very special way.” He believes the phenomenon that made bagels a staple in many American lives is similar to the process by which pizza and Chinese food became Americanized. “... Every group adds something new to the culture, and a big part of that contribution is their cuisine.”
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