Renaissance on a Roll: How the Bagel Went From Shtetls to Haute Cuisine

A visit to the world's bagel capital is a chance to marvel at how this unassuming Jewish-Ashkenazi food has come from its 17th-century beginnings.

Dan Peretz

NEW YORK – We saw the photo: a black-as-squid-ink bagel sandwich, its dark glossy surface strewn with tiny sesame seeds and smeared with anchovy butter,with orange-pink slices of jamon iberico peeking out. This bagel, the product of a one-time collaboration between New York’s Black Seed Bagels and chef Danny Bowien (Mission Chinese restaurant in New York), was on offer for one week only at the bagel place in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood. Unfortunately, it was the week before we were in town, but the picture, and imagining what it must have tasted like, haunted our dreams.

The black bagel by Danny Bowien, a rising star on the American culinary scene, was just one of a series of collaborations Black Seed Bagels has been doing with famous local chefs. The week before, the featured bagel at this modest-looking establishment was created by chef Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen (it was a bagel made with a blend of Japanese spices, seaweed cream cheese and ikura egg salad). And it was preceded by bagels created by Michelin-starred chef Missy Robbins and southern barbecue whiz Billy Durney. Even if the whole thing was largely a publicity stunt – and quite a successful one at that – to attract interest and customers, one certainly has to marvel at just how far this unassuming Jewish-Ashkenazi food has come from its 17th-century beginnings: from peddlers’ wagons in Eastern European shtetls to the sooty ovens of 19th-century Jewish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to mass production in the latter half of the 20th century, so that bagels were found in every supermarket and became a part of American popular cuisine, up to the present attempt to return to a more artisanal version and relate to the bagel in the language of haute cuisine.

The bagel in history

Afternoon at Black Seed Bagels in Nolita, the lovely neighborhood to the west of the Lower East Side, flanked by the boutiques of young designers, vintage clothing shops and cafes. You place your order at the counter and from one of the few tables you can observe the open kitchen, where the bagels are made by young bakers with bandanas tied around their heads. What a different setting from the windowless cellars where bakers toiled away just a few blocks from here, back in the 19th century.

“The conditions were terrible,” writes Maria Balinska, author of the fascinating monograph “The Bagel – The Surprising History of a Modest Bread” (Yale University Press, 2008). “The Lower East Side bakeries were located mainly along, or to be more precise, under Hester and Rivington Streets, down steep flights of stairs to a space rarely higher than 7 foot. Because of the rudimentary ovens, the temperature was fierce and, on the whole, impossible to control. There was no ventilation. Bakers worked shirtless stripped to their waist for thirteen or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. Typically young and unmarried, they often lived at their workplace sleeping between the mounds of rising dough and the oven with cats, rats and ‘cockroaches as big as birds’ for company. Illness was common and lifespan short.”

Dan Peretz

In the modern incarnation there is nothing reminiscent of the pre-modern inferno, aside from an impressively large wood oven and the movements of the bakers’ hands. Going back to making bagels by the traditional methods requires the same repetitive and monotonous hand motions that have been used to do the job since the 17th century: From a mound of firm, gluten-rich dough the baker takes a piece and rolls it into a long cylinder. Then she winds rings of dough around four skilled fingers on one hand (the more advanced use both hands at once). The rings of dough are cooked in boiling water – the water is seasoned with honey or malt to give the bagels that crisp, nicely-browned crust – and then baked on the hot stone bottom of the wood oven.

This trendy New York bagel emporium was opened a year and a half ago by Noah Bernamoff and Matt Kliegman, Jews who originally hail from Canada. In 2010, the pair opened Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, which became a leading proponent of the renaissance of Jewish-Ashkenazi cuisine in North America. “When we opened the Mile End in New York,” says Bernamoff, “we were so obsessive about the taste of the Montreal bagel that we decided to import them from there already baked. In Montreal, just like in New York, over time the bagel had become an inseparable part of the local and national landscape. But unlike in New York, where the traditional bakeries had virtually disappeared and were replaced by industrial bakeries, in Montreal you could still find bakeries that make bagels by the traditional method – by hand, boiled in water with honey (malt is generally used in New York) and baked in a wood oven. My partner, who still lived in Canada, was in charge of the shipments – which needless to say was a very complicated and expensive operation – and that’s how we did it in the first years.”

Bernamoff, who left a job as a lawyer to devote himself to his passion of curing and smoking meats, and Levine take pride in the fact that nearly all the things sold in their popular bakery are manufactured on a small, artisanal scale right on the premises. “When Mile End in New York expanded, in addition to our meats and pickles and sauces, we started baking pumpernickel bread and challah too. But we were still flying the bagels in from Montreal. One day we stopped and looked each other in the eye and asked – Why are we doing that? So we started doing a series of experiments. And after a few months, when we had come up with something we were satisfied with, Hurricane Sandy hit and flooded the place where we had started baking and all the equipment was ruined. We made a business decision that another financial investment in that wasn’t possible right then so we went back to flying in the bagels from Montreal. A year later, Matt said to me – I miss the taste of the bagels we were making ourselves, and that was when we got the idea to open Black Seed Bagels. I believe that we eventually were able to create a kind of hybrid of the Montreal and the New York bagel. New Yorkers like to say that the local water is responsible for the unique taste of the New York bagel. I don’t believe the water has that much of an influence, but we use local flour and we imported the preparation technique from there.”

Black Seed Bagels, which quickly became a big hit, is not alone on the scene. There’s also Baz Bagel and Restaurant on Grand Street, for instance – another modern bakery that has adopted the traditional bagel-making methods. And at least three more new bagel bakeries are due to open in New York in the coming year, including one by the famous Russ & Daughters.

And in Israel? The traditional Eastern European Jewish bagel is hard to come by here, though there are a few bakeries that try to preserve the old ways (such as Saba Marco’s Bagels in Kiryat Bialik and Bagel Hakrayot in Kiryat Motzkin, though their products are not the same as the New York or Canadian bagels), and of course there are local chains that mass-produce quite bland bagels. The only mention of Israel in Balinska’s charming book has to do with an episode from the 1970s, when El Al tried to promote sales by touting the food so identified with Jewish cuisine: On its first flights from New York, the company served bagels with cream cheese and lox, supplied a pamphlet on the history of the bagel, and even announced the opening of a department of bagel studies at the El Al offices in New York. Like most airplane food, this episode was soon forgotten.