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The bagel is a curious item, shaped like a ring doughnut, but made entirely of bread. Its simple shape belies its versatility, and there are countless variations on this basic theme.
Cut to Poland, 400 years ago, where no one was having a lot of fun. Nor were they enjoying a lot of bagels. The country was a sitting duck for the Russians and Swedes, who kept invading and then messing around with the elections of the Polish kings. The Polish were annoyed and took out their frustrations on the Cossacks1. The Cossacks, in turn, shared their concerns with the Jews2.
But the greatest deeds are done in the darkest times, and it was in Poland around this time that an unsung hero rolled malt, salt, yeast, flour, and water into a sort of proto-bagel, a distant, chewier ancestor of the multitudinous bagels we know of today.
Early in its history, this bagel became popular as a gift for women undergoing the pangs of childbirth. 'Bite the bagel' husbands would tell their wives. Back then, of course, every bagel was a hand-rolled bagel, and every hand-rolled bagel was a plain bagel not the torus-shaped springboard of infinite possibilities that we take for granted today. If you were to suggest to a Polish bagelsmith of the 1600s that he add poppy-seed or raisins to the dough of a bagel made by human hands, he would probably think you had flipped. The resulting dough would just be too hard to mix.
Even when the Industrial Revolution brought coal-fire hearths and mechanical mixers, the 'plain bagel barrier' was considered as difficult to shatter as the speed of sound. But in the early 1960s, with the advent of bigger, more cost-efficient ovens, it suddenly became feasible to add poppy seeds, onions, sesame, and garlic to the bagel. Somewhere in New York, a bagelmaker realised that this new technology could allow salt bagels to efficiently serve as the platform for any of these extras.
It took decades for bagelologists to realise the range of possibilities that had been sprung open by the ability to add things like poppy seed, although the full potential of the bagel would prove to be as dizzying as opium3, allowing for everything from jalapeno chiles to chocolate chips to find its way into the tasty torus. Empires have risen and fallen. The bagel has only become more varied in its many forms.
There are few places in the UK to obtain these savoury wonders. Usually they are purchased in pre-packed plastic bags from supermarkets. These are inevitably tough and highly dense.
If you are financially unchallenged then you can always make your way to the modern home of the bagel, New York. The bagels there come in all possible varieties and are remarkably cheap. They even deliver!
Flavours and Fillings
Bagels can be flavoured with almost anything. They can be coated in many varieties of seed from poppy to sunflower seeds and can also be stuffed with a multifarious collection of dried fruit, nuts, herbs and other delicacies.
Bagels can be eaten as they come but are often turned into a sandwich-type meal with fillings of cheese and pickle, cream cheese, and tuna and mayonnaise.