The history of the bagel: A New York City story by way of Poland and the Lower East Side

PODCAST Some delicious bagel history! How did the bagel go from the basement bakeries of the Lower East Side to the supermarkets and breakfast tables of the entire country?

The most iconic New York City foods — bagels, pizza, hot dogs — are portable, adaptable and closely associated with the city’s history through its immigrant communities. Bagel history, no surprise, traces back to the heart of Jewish New York.

In the case of the bagel, that story introduces us to the Polish immigrants who brought their religion, language and eating customs to the Lower East Side starting in the 1870s. During the late 19th century, millions of bagels were created in tiny bake shops along Hester and Rivington Streets, specifically for the neighborhood’s Jewish community.

We start there and end up in the modern day with frozen supermarket bagels, pizza bagels, bagel breakfast sandwiches, bagel bites. BAGELS SLICED ST. LOUIS STYLE?! How did this simple food from 17th century Poland become a beloved American breakfast staples?

Bagel History is Labor History

It starts with a bagel revolution! Poor conditions in the bakeries inspired a worker’s movement and the formation of a union that standardized the ways in which bagels were made. By the mid 20th century, modern technology allowed for bagels to be made cheaply and shipped all over the world.

But the ‘real’ way to make a bagel is to hand roll it. In this episode, we speak to Melanie Frost of Ess-a-Bagel for some insight into the pleasures of the true New York City bagel.

Listen Now — Bagels: A New York Story

To get this week’s episode, simply download or stream it for FREE from iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or other podcasting services. You can also get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it straight from here:

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This video from 1979 really just says all you need to know:

Food vendors on Hester Street, 1898

Byron Company/ Museum of the City of New York

In this 1898 photograph, we can actually see the address — 63 Hester Street. In later years this was the location of the beloved shop The Sweet Life.

Byron Compnay/Museum of the City of New York
George Grantham Bain Collection

A Polish bagel salesman in 1935.

Wikimedia

Streits Matzos manufacturing was once located at 150 Rivington Street. Although they no longer make Rivington Street their home, they are still in business.

Streits Matzos

Tom and Greg interviewing Melanie Frost at Ess-a-Bagel:

FURTHER LISTENING
After sinking your teeth into this week’s episode on the history of the bagel, try out these past shows about either cuisine and/or Jewish life in New York City


FURTHER READING
The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread by Maria Balinska
Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman
Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks
Gastropolis: Food and New York City by Annie Hauck-Lawson and ‎Jonathan Deutsch
A History of Polish Americans by John J. Bukoczyk
Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City / Oxford University Press

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Photo at top courtesy Flickr/p_bowl