A Brief History of Bagels & Lox

Originally published in Meatpaper, July 2012

The salmon traveled the farthest. Its  oldest known ancestor in the genus Salmonidae swam through the waters of the Eocene, back when Australia was still a part of Antarctica, North America was still a part of Europe, and India was just beginning its long and persistent attempt to hump its way over China, smashing itself into the Himalayan mountains in the process.

When the continents began to move, they took the salmon with them. When humans showed up, they noticed the salmon, many of which had developed an eccentric habit of migrating from freshwater out to the ocean, and then back again. Salmon navigate their way back to where they were hatched by the smell of their past. Olfactory memory draws them to their place of origin, until they reproduce, at which point their bodies flood with massive doses of corticosteroids, causing them to disintegrate in the water.

This drive to migrate set humans in motion as well. The Celio Falls in Wyoming was, archaeologists say, the Wall Street of the West [I still think this analogy is odd but I’ll go with it]. For 15,000 years tribes from all across North America converged there during the spawning season, building platforms to spear and net the twenty million salmon that raced up the Columbia River. Their smoked and dried carcasses became both food and currency.

Preserving the salmon by soaking it in saltwater brine came from the Scandanavians, but – inexplicably – caught on with Jewish immigrants from Europe before completely failing to catch on with their descendents. Today, what we call “lox” is almost always smoked – more like what happened at Celio Falls than in Norway.

The capers – compact flowerbuds, pickled before they bloom – came from elsewhere. Greece. Or Italy. The word “caper” is so close to the Hebrew for “desire” that opinions vary as to whether King Solomon is talking about pickles or longing.

The bagels came from coal-fired ovens underneath Hester and Rivington. The men who baked them worked fourteen hour days, seven days a week. At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely inhabited places on Earth. The bakers slept in between the mounds of rising dough, while every day, more boats pulled up to Ellis Island, disgorging more people. They arrived homesick, and the bakeries sold food to that homesickness.

The dough was made from wheat that grew on the plains of Kansas. It made a dough so stiff that the bakers kneaded it with their feet. The bakeries got so hot, especially in summer, that the bakers worked practically naked. Sometimes the bakers would collapse from heatstroke – people called to the scene described infernos inhabited by colonies of rats and cockroaches. Coal ash drifted through the air like confetti. The eggs were maggoty.

In the late 1800s bagelmakers began trying to form a union. They wanted a minimum wage, a ten-hour workday. Dough was doused in kerosene and set on fire. Bricks were thrown, by both sides. When their goals were finally accomplished,  in 1907, the historian Maria Balinska writes that a parade of five thousand people marched through the Lower East Side, carrying a loaf of bread fifteen feet long and five feet wide.

Bagelmakers became the most highly paid bakers in New York. They still worked ten hours a day in a basement next to a coal-fired oven, but they now made three times the median wage in New York City. Petitioners to Local 338 had to prove they could roll 830 bagels in an hour, or one every 4 seconds.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960’s that preservatives created bagels that stayed fresh for more than a few hours, and engineers created mixers that didn’t tear themselves apart trying to work the dough. By then, the bagel was no longer the food of the homesick. It was American enough that the bombing around the circumference of the city of Haiphong, Vietnam was described at the Pentagon as the “bagel strategy.”

Other signs that the bagel was becoming assimilated: the wedding. In 1984, the Lenders brothers, already selling $65 million dollars of bagels a year in supermarkets across America, marched an eight foot bagel down the aisle and gave its hand in marriage to a tub of Philadelphia cream cheese. The company was being given away in marriage to Kraft’s retail food group.

The first cream cheese in America was made in 1872, in Chester, New York – at least according to Kraft’s own food lore. The dairy owner named it Philadelphia, because food from Philadelphia was believed to be of better quality than food from New York.

The onions came over as seeds in someone’s pocket. The first domesticated onion in the Americas was, supposedly, planted by a member of Christopher Columbus’ expedition, in 1492.

You can buy something suspiciously similar to a bagel  in from Uigher merchants along the old silk route in China. The taste is reported to be only slightly different – chewier, and more dense. As early as 1397, you could buy a bagel-shaped bread in Italy called the taralli – though it is reported to be both more sweet, and hard.

The circular nature of ring breads inspired philosophizing: they symbolized life, death, yearning, good fortune, inclusiveness, solitude, union, the hole at the center of all existence. But they were road food, eaten by pilgrims and traveling merchants, carried while stale and then dunked in a hot liquid when they needed to become soft enough to eat. The staleness was a form of preservation, and transportation – the hard rings could be strung together and carried, like beads on a necklace, the same way that bagel sellers would carry them through the Lower East Side centuries later.

Today, debates rage over whether there are any authentic bagels left in America. In 2010 the Mile End restaurant in Brooklyn began picking up loads of bagels in Montreal and driving them to New York under cover of darkness. The Montreal bagel, the story went, had never became popular, and thus never assimilated, and so the recipe had changed little from the European original.

Their arrival was greeted with curiosity, and no small amount of disdain. Seventy years after the bagel had arrived, more or less, in North America, it had drifted in so many directions that the term “authentic” had become suspect. By the 1950’s, “Bagels and lox” had become an insult – a disparaging term used by Jewish immigrants to describe their counterparts who had become too American.

Bagels and lox had no analogue in the old country. It was food as collage – pickled Italian flower buds and Scandanavian style fish heaped over over English-style cheese. It had traveled as far as the salmon did, and become something entirely new in the journey. What could you be homesick for, when you ate it? Unless it was homesickness for the melting pot itself.