No Schmear Job: A Brief History Of Bagels And Lox

Sep 21, 2013
Originally published on September 23, 2013 5:35 pm

There's a certain kind of joy in breaking the overnight fast by biting into a bagel: crackling crust, chewy center, smooth and silky cream cheese, sharp smoked salmon. For some, capers and onions join the ritual.

But just who invented this breakfast staple, which has become as American as apple pie?

Journalist Heather Smith explored that question in a piece for the magazine Meatpaper that The New Yorker described as "historical food writing of a sort that we taste too rarely — packed with knowledge, humor, and even wisdom — and required reading for New Yorkers." Meatpaper — the flesh-centric Bay Area publication — is now defunct: Its 20th and final issue is currently for sale. But its closing prompted us to revisit Smith's treatise.

The origin of the bagel, Smith tells NPR's Scott Simon, "is somewhat mysterious." What's certain is that bagel met and married lox in New York, she says. Smith was also one of the editors of Meatpaper — and a former NPR intern. Bagels are a true American melting-pot meal, she says.

"These mash-ups are what American does best," she says. "The cronut and ramen burger — those were also invented in New York. But in those cases, you can trace it back to a specific person. In this case, it seems to have just sprung like Venus from the clamshell. The bagel [and lox] may just be our greatest triumph. That, or the burger."

But, as in so many modern unions, both partners came to the marriage with plenty of baggage.

Lox, we learn, come to us via the Scandinavians, who mastered the art of preserving salmon in saltwater brine, but also via Native Americans, who smoked and dried the fish's carcasses for food and currency. The capers come from Italy, while cream cheese has roots in Britain.

As for the bagel? Smith writes that this ring-shaped treat is "suspiciously similar" to a bread that Uigher merchants sold along the old silk route in China. And in Italy, she notes, a bagel-shaped bread called a taralli was sold as early as the late 14th century — "though it was reported to be both sweeter and harder."

"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," Smith writes:

"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 aided in 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."

So how did the bagel leap from being a New York street food to standard brunch fare across the country? Thank the Lenders brothers, says Smith: They capitalized on refrigeration technology early on to sell bagels packaged in a tube to the rest of America.

"They knew in New York, everybody ate bagels," she says. The family "seemed to spread outside their own ethnic origins in the way certain foods do, like pizza." The Lender family had the foresight, she says, to grasp that the rest of America would also embrace this baked treat.

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Bagels and lox, they go with weekends for many; a crackling bagel crust, chewy center, silky cream cheese, sharp smoke salmon - that's the lox - maybe capers and onions, too. Who invented what's become a staple that's just about as American as pizza, chow mein and apple pie? Heather Smith was editor of the recently defunct magazine, Meatpaper. She's written about the history of the bagel and lox. And Heather, by the way, happens to be a former WEEKEND EDITION intern. She joins us from New York. Heather, I'm so glad you find wholesome work. Thanks very much for being back with us.

HEATHER SMITH: Thanks so much, it's great to be back.

SIMON: So is a bagel just a bialy with a hole in the middle?

SMITH: It's very different, and the origins of the bagel are somewhat mysterious. There's a lot of folklore around it and variable legends about how the bagel came to exist. But I have decided that we will never know.

SIMON: Well, it's one of the great mysteries of life, think of it that way. What made the bagel leap from being just kind of New York street food, you know, or maybe Sunday brunch food, across the country?

SMITH: So it was really, I think, the Lenders brothers, and Lender's bagels are what I grew up in. I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan, and I thought they were the greatest thing ever. Like you would get six of them in a little plastic tube. And now, like when I think, the taste was awful, but they were early adopters of refrigeration technology.

SIMON: Can you sing the theme song?

SMITH: There's a theme song?

SIMON: There was. I'm sure they haven't tried it for years. I believe the chorus is (singing) you've got to - let's see - buy, steal or finagle a Lender's bagel.

SMITH: As a small child I would have done that.


SMITH: To me bagels were just magical, even if they were frozen.

SIMON: So cream cheese is kind of British in origin. Smoked salmon could be Scandinavian or Scottish. Capers are Italian. So any idea how it all came together in this American food?

SMITH: These food mash-ups are kind of what America does best, and the cronut and the ramen burger, like those were also invented in New York. But in this case it seems to have just sprung like, you know, Venus from the clam shell.


SMITH: The bagel might be our greatest triumph, that or the burger.


SIMON: Heather Smith, one of the editors of Meatpaper magazine. Its last issue is available now. She joined us from New York, one of our former interns. Heather, thanks so much for being with us.

SMITH: Thank you.

SIMON: Much naches to you.

SMITH: I love Yiddish.


SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.