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Bagels are an American invention, but Poland wants you to know about its ring-shaped bread

  • 5 min to read

KRAKOW, Poland — Southern chefs have lately had their way with the bagel, putting idiosyncratic spins on what’s emerged as one of America’s favorite breakfast items.

At Button & Co. Bagels in Asheville, N.C., the production process begins with a sourdough starter, which supplies the canvas for figs and sorghum syrup. Bagels at The Grey Market in Savannah are steamed instead of boiled; those left unsold at day’s end are turned into chips and served with green goddess dip. And closer to home, Renzo sometimes gives its customers the chance to spread bottarga cream cheese on their cacio e pepe bagels.

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Baker Brett Common takes a rack of sea salt bagels out of the oven on June 16, 2019, in the kitchen at Renzo in Charleston. Sylvia Jarrus/Staff

Not all of these developments have been warmly received by purists, who have strict standards for bagel size, shape, texture and flavor. But, as it turns out, the region’s innovators are, in fact, upholding the most sacred bagel tradition, which involves adaptation for contemporary tastes.

The bagel is an American bread, albeit one with a European personality. Some bagel fans, and even bagel scholars, believe otherwise: They claim the bagel was born in Poland. Yet leading Polish bakers forcefully deny paternity. Their baby is the obwarzanek Krakowski, a dense, ring-shaped bread so cherished that in 2010 it was granted protection as an official European Union regional product.

Still, “You can buy fake obwarzanka: This is a fact,” says Wojtek Siudak, founder of the Museum of Obwarzanka.

In Krakow, you can also now buy New York-style bagels at Bagelmama in the Kazimierz district, which was the city’s Jewish quarter prior to Nazi occupation: A Woody Allen sandwich is made with tuna salad and comes on the customer’s choice of sesame, onion, poppy seed or everything bagel.

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Everything bagels on June 16, 2019, in the kitchen at Renzo in Charleston. Sylvia Jarrus/Staff

None of those, though, qualify as an obwarzanek. That’s the message that bakers want to get out of Poland, which is setting an international example for bread pride.

Bagel, schmagel

As visitors to the Museum of Obwarzanka learn, the obwarzanek dates back to the late-1300s. It was first mentioned by name in an official document issued in 1496, around the time that Nicolaus Copernicus was finishing up his math studies at the University of Krakow. King John Albert’s decree stipulated that only members of the Krakow Bakers Guild could make and sell obwarzanka.

Obwarzanek vendor in Krakow

An obwarzanka vendor in Krakow, Poland. Jerry Miller/Provided

John Albert’s law was regularly renewed for another two centuries. Then King Jan Sobieski, who’s also credited with fending off the Ottoman Empire’s takeover of Europe, ended the monopoly. In other words, Jewish bakers were allowed to legally get into the obwarzanek business.

Or was it the bagel business? The word “bagel,” derived from the Yiddish word for “bracelet,” appeared in print in Poland as early as 1610, according to Maria Balinska, author of “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread.”

What seems most likely is “bagel” was the term used in Jewish communities for what Christians called “obwarzanek.” Much as a sandwich connoisseur couldn’t tell the difference between a sub and a hoagie if the two grinders were set before her, even the most accomplished Polish baker wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between a bagel and an obwarzanka.

Instructional posters at Museum of Obwarzanka

The first thing that students at the Museum of Obwarzanka learn is how to tell the difference between a bagel (top), an obwarzanek (middle) and a pretzel (bottom). Hanna Raskin/Staff

At least, that was true up until the 1890s, when the bagel went to the U.S. and developed an identity of its own.

In his essay, “Eating Up: The Origins of Bagel and Lox,” published in the 2017 compendium “Tastes of Faith: Jewish Eating in the United States,” Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx describes the original bagel sold by immigrant Jewish bakers in New York City. It was “a hard, dark European pretzel with an enormous hole.” A reporter in 1895 likened it to a “pretzel biscuit.”

By the 1920s, though, the bagel was softer; its hue was lighter and its hole had shrunk so drastically that a schmear wouldn’t fall through.

'Tender triumph'

Of course, cream cheese was a New World addition to the bagel, taking the place of butter or schmaltz. So was smoked salmon, a stand-in for herring. But what made a “bagel” a bagel, in the way it’s now understood, was the domestic transformation of the obwarzanek into something more like a roll.

This development is frequently blamed on the automated bagel-making machine and Lender’s, the first company to lease one.

Daniel Thompson, who also came up with the world’s first fold-up Ping-Pong table, in the early 1960s perfected a contraption that could roll and form bagels four times as fast as the average member of the New York City bakers’ union.

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Baker Brett Common prepares bagel dough on June 15, 2019, in the kitchen at Renzo in Charleston. Sylvia Jarrus/Staff

With the machine’s help, “any Joe off the street could make a bagel,” Michael Goodman, author of "Jewish Food: The World at Table," told The New York Times on the occasion of Thompson’s death in 2015. “And that was one of a confluence of factors that in less than a generation turned the bagel … into the kind of baked good that Americans like, a la Wonder Bread.”

Yet Marx, who contributed the "Tastes of Faith" essay, has thoroughly debunked that theory. He cites numerous contemporary accounts establishing the bagel’s earlier evolution, including a 1951 Family Circle column urging readers to “split these tender triumphs in halves,” a trick nobody would try with a small, solid obwarzanek.

Marx argues that the availability of wheat flour did a number on the bagel by the 1920s, along with American Jews’ vested interest in the soft, white foods, which were then the height of culinary fashion. In the age of vanilla pudding and cream of celery soup, pillowy bagels were seen as proof that Eastern European immigrants’ children “increasingly concerned about their racial status in an America that defined people as ‘black’ or ‘white’,” were in touch with whiteness.

Whatever the sociopolitical reasons for the shift, eaters of all ethnic backgrounds adored the results. The bagel became an international phenomenon, much to the dismay of obwarzanek champions back in Krakow.

Ring of protection

Kazimierz Czekaj spearheaded the campaign to win EU protection for the obwarzanek, putting it in the same category of geographically restricted products as Roquefort cheese, Strandzha honey and Melton Mowbray pork pies. The Wall Street Journal in 2010 reported that Czekaj took up the cause after he “noticed that foreigners and even the local press were increasingly referring to (obwarzanek) as a bagel.”

“Enough of this,” Czekaj said.

Since then, Krakovians have flaunted their loyalty to obwarzanka, which are depicted on socks sold in novelty shops. But the bread remains an essential component of everyday life: It’s the rare street corner that hasn’t been claimed by a vendor with a blue, aquarium-like cart, filled with obwarzanka priced at about 50 U.S. cents apiece. Collectively, they sell 150,000 obwarzanka a day.

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Raw obwarzanka at Museum of Obwarzanka. Hanna Raskin/Staff

Pro-obwarzanek sentiment also inspired the two-year-old Museum of Obwarzanka, which isn’t a museum in the typical sense. Instead, it’s a classroom for obwarzanek-making workshops, offered multiple times a day. It was modeled after Lublin’s Regional Museum of Cebularze (another kind of Polish bread, and another story.)

“When my wife told me about this kind of place, I said, ‘It’s crazy! How is it possible to make a place like that based on a piece of bread?’, ” Wojtek Siudak says.

Now the Siudaks instruct 2,000 eager students every month. On a recent weekday, Siudak led a class for visiting Chinese journalists, each of whom was provided with a tiny pitcher of honeyed water and wooden saucers holding premeasured amounts of salt, wheat flour and yeast. With Siudak’s help, they rolled out the dough, divided it in two and twisted together the strands into a distinctive garland shape, roughly 5 inches across.

Siudak then took the obwarzanka into the kitchen: A closed-circuit feed allowed students to watch as their handiwork was rapidly boiled and baked. When the warm obwarzanka were returned to the room, their makers carefully styled them for social media appearances.

According to Siudak, visiting Krakow without sampling an obwarzanek is like failing to eat a baguette in Paris. Parisians would no doubt agree, although perhaps between bites of a bagel: The American invention has become wildly popular there.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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