Sleek, dense and satisfying, bagels are a favourite of countless Americans and are also iconic of New York City street food. The ingredient list for bagels is simple: flour, yeast, salt and a sweetener. Sweet or savoury, their spongy interior is achieved with high-gluten flour, which is often lightened by adding egg, milk, and butter into the mix. Traditionally, the dough was shaped by hand into a ring; nowadays, mass production machines take care of this. Production figures speak for themselves: the number of bagels sold every day in the US ranges from two to ten million. But who invented bagels? And how did they become the best-seller they are today? It all began in medieval Europe.


While there is no definitive proof of it, the bagel is likely to have originated in central Europe. Legend has it that in Vienna in 1683, a local baker invented the distinctive bread to commemorate the victory of John III Sobieski, the king of Poland, over the Turks who had tried to conquer the city. However, bagels are mentioned in written accounts in Poland in 1610, and there is also a similar Polish bread ring called ‘obwarzanek‘ that appears in documents that date back to 1394.


Bagels arrived in the United States in the 19th century, when Eastern European immigrants arrived there, taking their customs and culinary traditions with them. In 1927, the Lender family set up a bagel business following the old recipe: boiling the dough and then baking it, making the rings crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that bagels became popular among the general population. In 1984, Kraft Foods — which made Philadelphia cheese — bought Lender’s Bagels, and by the mid-1990s bagels were a best-selling product that made millions of dollars a year.


There are many ways to eat a bagel: for breakfast or as a snack, with ingredients like cream cheese and salmon as fillers, or on its own, freshly baked, toasted or even microwaved (although some consider this heresy.) According to one prominent food critic, the perfect bagel is “a fairly small, dense, gray, cool and chewy delight that gives jaw muscles a Sunday morning workout.” The not-so-good news is that the number of calories in a bagel has more than doubled in the last twenty years, so it might be a good idea to extend the workout to the rest of the body after indulging in this tempting snack.