I recently picked up Maria Balinska's new book from Yale University Press, "The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread." I was hoping that the book would shed some light on the baking industry in early 20th-century New York City, given my interest in Lochner v. New York.
The book was only marginally helpful in that regard, but I am otherwise interested in bagels, one of my favorite foods, so I read the whole thing. Despite good reviews elsewhere, I found the book disappointing.
Balinska approaches the book more as a historian than as a sociologist or anthropologist. She provides some very interesting early history of the bagel. But thereafter she is limited by her sources. For exmaple, the book has a lot of detail about the New York Jewish bakers' union, but that story, while mildly interesting, is largely tangential to the history of the bagel. Moreover, because she relies on union sources, the story is completely one-sided; the reader doesn't get the perspective of any of the bagel bakery owners, just the workers. And, not surprisingly for work in this genre, Balinska attributes victories to the union, such as a nine-hour day, which are better attributed historically to generally rising standards of living. (UPDATE: Almost all bakers, unionized or not, already were working no more than nine-hour days when the Jewish bakers' union won this "concession.")
Balinskaaalso spends a great deal of time talking about the history of Lender's Bagels, which undoubtedly helped spread the bagel around the country through its frozen bagels. The Lender family was apparently quite generous with its time. But what about local bagel redoubts that kept the flame of bageldom alive in Jewish communities around the U.S.?
Anyway, as a native New York Jewish bagel afficiando, here are some things that I think the book should have covered:
(1) Why did bagels become so popular, while bialys (which I think are never mentioned in the book), were left in the dust? When I was a kid, an order of a dozen bagels would usually add a few bialys, and bagels set out for brunch were usually accompanied by a smaller number of bialys. Whither the bialy? (By the way, as of two years ago, there's an amazingly good bialy place still operating on the Lower East Side).
(2) How similar are modern bagels to the Polish-Jewish original?
(3) Given that hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews migrated to Palestine before and after WWII, why are bagels (not bagelehs, a pale Mideastern alternative) not native to Israel? Why are Israeli bagelries inevitably opened by immigrants from New York (until they inevitably fail?)
(4) Why has it historically been so difficult to find a decent bagel in the U.S. outside the New York Metro area? What about the folklore in the New York Jewish community that there is something in the New York water that's especially conducive to bagel-making?
(5) While bagels are associated with "Jewish food," the vast majority of the "Hot Bagels" stores I encountered growing up were run by Italians, with Italian appetizing available in store. How did the Jewish bagel become an Italian business?
(6) What, an entire book about bagels and no mention (except for an old picture) of H & H?
(7) The book reeks of bagel triumphalism, but is the round roll sold as a bagel in most of the U.S. really a bagel? The history of the bagel suggests that boiling before baking is the essence of a bagel, but I believe that most bread that passes for "bagel" nowadays is simply baked after some water is spritzed on the dough.
(8) The rise and fall of national bagel chains in the 1990s--Einstein Brothers, New York Bagel Bakery, etc.
(9) The growth in bagel girth in New York. (Bagels purchased at a proper bagel shop are now maybe twice the size as when I was a boy).
(10)More about Montreal bagels. Apparently, Montreal claims to have the best bagels in the world. I never even heard of a Montreal bagel until a very recent trip to Canada. But the author only discusses Montreal bagels briefly at the very end of the book.
(11) What about other traditional Jewish street food, such as the amazing knish? Why do we have "bagel and lox Judaism," not "sliced knish with spicy mustard in the center" Judaism? In other words, why did Jewish culture become associated with the bagel as opposed to knishes, or black and white cookies, or rugelach? How did the bagel displace chicken soup?
(12) How did McDonald's come to serve sausage, egg, and cheese bagels?
(13) We learn about the first cinnamon raisin bagel, but who invented the blueberry bagel? The asiago cheese bagel? The chocolate chip bagel? Were these advances in bagel versatility, or an example of the "pizza phemonenon" (good New York pizza needs no toppings; dreck like Pizza Hut requires enough toppings that you don't actually taste the pizza).
Bonus bagel information: For those of you who live in the D.C. area, there's a great, relatively new bagelry in Rockville, called Goldberg's. Their bagels are the only bagels I've ever had in the D.C. area that are worthy of the name. (Sorry Bagel City fans, those just don't cut it). Goldberg's is kosher, so it's not open on Saturday.