The Bagel, Maria Balinska

Sometimes when Amazon reviewers give low marks to a book the comments indicate that a book is not good. Sometimes the comments reveal that the Person Angry on the Internet didn’t actually read the same book that the author wrote. Sometimes the reader understood the book but is just angry that it isn’t the book he or she wanted. The last scenario is true of Maria Balinska’s The Bagel, which the reviewer lamented was principally a history of Jewish labor history, rather than a history of the eating of bagels. This is a valid observation, though Balinska does her best to lay out what evidence there is for how bagels were consumed, too.

Balinska starts with an overview of what she considers to be related breads from China to Italy, all wheat breads (distinct from rye, barley, oat, etc) made into dense loaves that go stale quickly, are usually eaten by dipping in tea or other hot liquids, and are baked into rings. One of the closest relatives to the bagel is the pretzel, with the three holes taking on religious significance. Balinska traces the bagel from medieval Poland, where it diverged emerged from a Polish wheat ring bread owarzanek, a luxury in a region that mostly produced rye flour, but one that was a Sunday food because it was associated with purity. The bagel separated from the Christian version by being boiled when the Polish monarchy issued restrictions against Jewish bakers making owarzanek.

The story crosses the Atlantic in the 1880s with the waves of Jewish immigrants and is wrapped around the labor politics, food safety standards, and anti-immigrant sentiments in the subsequent decades. Despite the complaint lodged in the Amazon review, this was the most interesting and strongest part of the book and one that I want to use should I ever find myself teaching the second half of US history. The stories about the conditions in these bakeries make me thankful for food safety standards, and the labor upheavals mirror the more well-known industries. The 1905 Supreme Court Case Lochner v New York, which ruled that the government could not limit the hours people worked, was brought by a bakery. At the NY bagel baker’s union’s height, Balinska argues that it was the shape and density of the dough, which defied mechanization, that gave the union power.

Balinska concludes the story by recounting how mechanization and big business in the form of Lender’s Bagels led to the Jewish bread conquering the United States. Frozen bagels made them last longer (fresh bagels earlier had a tendency to go stale in a matter of hours) and they became a readily available convenience food for homes and hotels alike.

The Bagel is an engaging read, though Balinska’s specific narrative is how special Jewish food in Poland became ubiquitous in America gives short shrift to the story of bagels in Montreal and tends to be somewhat reductive in order to trace this narrative. For instance, the existence of Bagel traditions in Florida, Buffalo, and those in New York run by organized crime are only accounted for in terms of the challenge they presented to the proliferation of New York style bagels. Being more comprehensive is impossible in a book so short, but what does appear hints at a larger, richer, and more complex story out there. The Bagel was published in 2008 and I was left wondering if, like other consumable products, there is an addendum to the big business, moderate quality climax–one where there has emerged a decentralized, artisanal bagel movement.

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