June 27, 2011

Quick, what is the Most Successful Jewish Food in History?

The announcement that the popular upper West Side bagel outlet H & H had closed its doors triggered eulogies that were more fitting for the loss of a good friend despite the fact that its Midtown production facility and store will continue. And why not? Whenever I am asked what the most successful Jewish food in history is, I instantly say the bagel. I cannot think of another food whose origin is the shtetl and which is still called by the same Yiddish name (“bagel” means round) all over the world today as it was at its founding. My source on all Jewish food is the new Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks. He traces the origin of the bagel to 16th century Poland. At the turn of the 20th century when hundreds of thousands of Jews made their way to the US, they brought the bagel with them. Imagine that in 1907, there were more than 300 bagel bakers in New York. So how is the bagel made? Says Marks: “The bagel’s distinction derives from being boiled in water before baking, a step that produces the characteristics crisp crust and moist chewy interior…The scolding liquid kills any yeast on the surface, thereby restricting rising during baking and maintaining the shape, as well as contributing to the unique shiny surface. The bagel’s ring shape had a practical purpose – the hole made the bagel easier to remove from the boiling water.”

So while the bagel became a common global term in almost every country and language in the world, there is no secret that New York’s bagels are superior to bagels baked anywhere else. The reason: the outstanding texture of New York’s water, which is why one is apt to see many tourists on the H & H line. To all those lamenting about the loss of a key bagel destination in New York City, you have my complete sympathy. After all, where will you ever be able to get a product that has “everything?”