The Bagel and Me

I’ve never written notes on the bagel even though I was raised in Montreal, home of perhaps the most admired type of the baked wheat ring. I’ll remedy that here.

Much has been written on the lore and history of the bagel. A Business Insider article in 2016 summarized well the various origin theories. Maria Balinska, who wrote a full-length study of bagel history (2009), was interviewed. An Atlantic article from 2009 delved further into the history, and also interviewed Balinska.

It all seems to go back to Middle Ages Poland, or possibly Austria.

This well-referenced Wikipedia essay is also helpful, in particular to describe similar European and Asian breads. For some reason, the bagel came to international prominence. Small differences in ingredients and the baking perhaps account for this, although it’s always hard to know. For whatever reason, the “bagel taste” did the trick.

I can’t add much to the objective historiography, except perhaps to highlight a couple of American press accounts as the bagel was rising (sorry) to national prominence.

In February, 1944 in Manhattan a truckload of bagels was stolen. When reported to police, it had to be explained to them what a bagel was. See the account, here. Until then and for decades after, the bagel was Jewish ethnic food, made where Jews lived and consumed mostly by them.

A 1975 article in Cortland, New York, “Bagel Becomes an Institution”, shows how the bagel finally left its native precincts. It interviewed Connecticut-based Murray Lender, surely responsible more than anyone for putting the bagel on the national map.

Lender devised a method to freeze bagels that allowed a highly perishable item to be kept in near-perfect condition for months. Hence how something from the corner bakeshop, that might last a day or two in the breadbox, was transformed into a widely-available stand-by.

Lender’s 1976 ad in the Watertown Daily Times adroitly explained how easy it was to bring frozen bagels to freshness. As they were “pre-sliced”, they needed only to be popped in the “toaster or toaster oven” for a morning treat. Six varieties were offered at the time.

I remember visiting a Lender’s with restaurant attached in New Haven, about when the last story came out. I liked the bagels even though they seemed quite different to the pride of Montreal. They had a dense kind of crumb, a little salty as I recall, and toasted well.

Fresh-baked bagels are as popular as ever, especially in larger centres that can support local bakeries. There are chains and indie stores in cities of almost any size, it seems. And various brands are distributed through supermarkets, sometimes frozen, to have them available almost everywhere.

Tim Horton, the donut chain in Canada, has them, which means they are everywhere. Its multi-grain bagel, toasted, is pretty good – butter and strawberry jam for me.

In my youth, 1950s-60s, the bagel was strictly an occasionally treat. We lived in Snowdon on the west side of Mount Royal, the verdant hill in Montreal’s centre. There were no bagel bakeries in our quarter, at that time.

To get them, we went to St-Viateur Bagel Bakery on St-Viateur Street in the east end, or Fairmount Bagel a short distance away. Both were, and are, east of Avenue Parc.*

Until the 1950s most Jews in Montreal lived in the east end. They were artisans, shopkeepers, and factory workers, for the most part. A much smaller professional and business class lived further west, in Outremont, Mount Royal, later Westmount, etc.

We got St-Viateur Bagels when we visited my grandparents on Sunday. They lived around the corner from the bakery, on Esplanade Street, on the second floor of a triplex.

At that time there were two kinds of Montreal bagel: sesame seed and poppy seed. That’s it. The variations with onion, garlic, caraway, etc. came in later, I think from New York influence.

Montreal is famous for its particular method: hand-rolling, a light boiling of the rings in honey-flavoured water, and baking in a wood-fired stove. Barley malt is added to the flour mixture, usually.  The crumb is fairly dense but not dry, a little spongy. The sesame type was and still is the best I think but a good poppy seed is hard to beat.

Finally, no salt is added to the dough, which accents a slight sweetness.

Unlike many devotees, I rarely eat them with cream cheese and almost never with smoked salmon. I like it with butter and usually, jam. Maybe a little cheddar or sliced Kraft cheese. If very fresh, no toasting is needed.

Bagels were more expensive than sliced white loaf, a factor I think in not being a staple in our home. But also, my mother was always weight-conscious and used to say, a bagel is like three pieces of standard bread…

We ate sliced Weston bread daily, regular not whole wheat (little known then). Sometimes, yes, a “kimmel” (caraway), “corn” (wheat-based with some corn), or “black” (pumpernickel-type) bread, also fetched from the east end, but they stood on a par with the bagel: occasional use. Of course I can’t speak for every family even in our part of Montreal, just ours.

A good commercial white loaf is still a favourite of mine. Toasted, it’s excellent if you get it hot and, I can’t insist enough, very fresh.

Now, I’ve never been chauvinist about Montreal bagels. They are tops, for sure, but sometimes I want something different. When we travel to New York I like Ess-a-Bagel. Big, doughy/elastic, crusty, good in its way.

The ones at the hot dog stands or ordinary cafes are too salty and dry imo, but still okay especially for the price.

In Toronto, a couple of small chains do the Montreal style well. The original Toronto way was slightly salty, lighter, with a browned crust. Gryfe’s does a good one, they have a particular taste, I think from the yeast, that is attractive. BlogTo had a good piece 12 years ago on this Toronto institution.

Kettleman’s in Ottawa, which does Montreal-style, is first-rate. Below is an image of their wood-fired oven in action. Kettleman’s perhaps is slightly lighter than the St-Viateur and Fairmount types but as good imo, very digestible with the scent of smoke on the crust. Also, they freeze great and come out of the toaster oven in perfect shape: five minutes at 350 F.




Kettleman’s follow Montreal procedures including hand-rolling, wood oven, the boiling, etc. and it shows in the taste.

I had beigels as they spell them (still?) in Britain a few times. They were fine. Smaller than ours as I recall, I needed two. Like saveloys. Or a good pint. You must have two. But I digress.

N.B. For some good background on the Montreal bagel scene, see here, from Tourisme Montreal.


*An earlier version stated erroneously east of St-Laurent Boulevard (the Main). Thanks to an alert reader who wrote to me to point this out.