The bagel may not be the only bread of its kind in the world, says author Maria Balinska, but it’s the only one “to have had such a career.” A journalist and author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Balinska has researched the famous foodstuff from its origins in 17th-century Poland to its status today as an icon of both New York City and Jewish-American food.

The evolution of the bagel is inextricably tied with that of the Jewish-American experience, following a trajectory Balinska deems a “riches to rags to riches story.” Beginning in eastern Europe as the product of Jewish bakers, the bagel was a luxury item in the 17th century. As wheat became cheaper, the bagel became a widely consumed—and widely beloved—snack food. During her research, Balinska found that the bread had even become part of eastern European pop culture: “It becomes something that’s part of rhymes for children,” she says. “There’s stories told about bagels; there’s songs about bagels.”

Eventually, the bagel followed its community in the 20th century as Jews emigrated to the United States and Canada. In New York and Montréal, it became a mainstay of the cities’ Jewish communities, even as it remained largely unknown outside of them. That changed in the mid-20th century, when New Haven’s Lender brothers “made characters out of bagels” in order to sell them to a national audience (and industrialization made mass production possible). Today, the bagel has assimilated into mainstream American culture, even as some advocates attempt to return to its hand-crafted beginnings.

We spoke with Balinska about the history of the bagel—and by extension, the history of Jewish-Americans and their food—in America, from its early days as a luxury item, to its Canadian cousin, to its star turn on television.

Illustrations by Max Schieble 

Roots in The Old Country

The bagel likely originated sometime in between the arrival of Jews in eastern Europe in the 9th century, when communities were invited to help populate towns, and 1610, which marks the first mention of bagels on record in a Krakow law regarding the consumption of bagels at circumcision ceremonies. Bagels were thus a distinctively Jewish food from their inception, partially because baking in general was a largely Jewish profession in eastern Europe at the time.

Thanks to their use of wheat flour rather than the much cheaper rye, bagels were initially considered a luxury item. By the 19th century, though, wheat prices had dropped to the point that the bagel simply became a popular snack: “The way that on a New York street corner you have pretzels being sold, in eastern Europe you had peddlers selling bagels on street corners,” Balinska says.

Eventually, the bagel moved to the other end of the class spectrum entirely and “became synonymous with people who were down on their luck.” Before we follow the bagel’s migration, along with much of the European poor, to the other side of the Atlantic, it’s worth noting that the bagel as it developed in the region looked quite different from what we find in supermarkets today: with a much bigger central hole and a much harder exterior, the bread would take a few tweaks before making a good base for a bacon, egg, and cheese.

A niche product takes shape in NYC

Like so many other once-“ethnic” foods now considered mainstream, the bagel landed on American shores with the massive influx of southern and eastern European immigrants around the end of the 19th century. Jewish newcomers clustered in New York, so that’s where the country’s first bagel bakeries opened up, and where the oldest ones remain.

The bagel didn’t simply transplant to New York, though; it also evolved. According to Balinska, Brooklynites once called the eastern European bread the “cement doughnut” thanks to its density, which made it impossible to slice open and make into sandwiches. Over time, bakers made their bagels softer and the holes narrower to fit American palates, allowing for the proliferation of lox, cream cheese, and other customary toppings by the 1940s and 1950s.

Bagels were still far from the mainstream, however. Most bakeries weren’t storefronts, but wholesale businesses located in basements, and their product remained niche. Many New Yorkers had only heard of them through news coverage of strikes incited by the notoriously powerful bagel bakers’ union—to the point where Balinska found New York Times articles from as late as the 1950s explaining to readers what, exactly, a bagel is.

“Bagel-ize America,” New PR tactics, and Rapid Expansion

To take the bagel national, the New York specialty needed two sons of a Polish bakery owner from New Haven, CT: Sam and Murray Lender. Once they took over the family business, the Lender brothers resolved to “bagel-ize America,” a process that involved revolutionizing how bagels were both made and marketed.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Lenders began freezing their bagels, a technique that instantly expanded their product’s potential reach. Previously, bagels “would go stale very, very quickly, so there was no point transporting them outside certain areas they were made,” Balinska says. “But suddenly, once you could have frozen bagels, you could transport them however you wanted, as long as you had refrigerated trucks.”

Freezing helped increase supply, but to stimulate demand, the Lenders turned to some unorthodox PR tactics. The duo used humor to maximize their small marketing budget, decorating their bags with cartoons depicting a romance between their product and partner Philadelphia cream cheese; later, they offered talk show host Johnny Carson a “bagel necklace” made in his likeness on-air. (The tradition still lives on in the “Crafts” section of the Lender’s Bagels website.)

The beginning of a new era for the bagel spelled the end of another. With Lender’s stocked on supermarket shelves across the country, smaller shops were left unable to compete—even in their hometown. The New York bagel’s heyday came to a symbolic close when the bagel bakers’ notoriously powerful union was folded into a larger bakers’ union in the early 1970s.

The “Other” Bagel

As the bagel as most Americans know it was developing in New York, a parallel development was taking place just a few hundred miles to the north. The origins of the Montréal-style bagel are obscure; Balinska admits, “it’s unclear to me how it actually happened,” and that it’s impossible to know who first started making the sweeter, smaller bagels—or why. (Both Fairmount and St. Viateur bakeries lay unverifiable claim to its invention, though.)

What is known is that Montréal bagels began with the same wave of immigration that brought the bread to New York at the end of the 19th century; some European Jews simply opted for Canada over the States. And just as the New York bagel gradually became denser and softer than its eastern European ancestor, the Montréal bagel became sweeter.

There’s also a much less well-known difference between the two bagels: the Montréal style “didn’t go massive in Canada,” Balinska notes. “It remained something artisanal…[and] cherished as a local delicacy.” Shoppers can’t find mass-produced Montréal bagels on Vancouver supermarket aisles, a state of affairs most Americans would find unrecognizable—and that some are attempting to recapture.

Coming Full Circle

Back in the States, the bagel is finally starting to shake its affiliation with mass production, perpetuated by Sara Lee and giant chains like Bruegger’s and Einstein Bros. As with various other forms of food and drink in the 21st century, the bagel has seen a proliferation of small manufacturers interested in quality over quantity. “Just as you’ve got a lot of craft beers, you’ve got a lot of craft bagels,” Balinska notes.

These newer shops offer hand-rolled, small-batch bagels, often prepared using techniques learned directly from “the old-timers, as they’re called.” In New York, examples include Baz, Black Seed, and Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company—all recent additions to a scene that still includes stalwarts like Russ & Daughters.

But in 2015, the bagel’s significance is as much symbolic as culinary. “In many ways,” says Balinska, “it’s not a bad metaphor for the American-Jewish experience, becoming part of the mainstream…. The bagel’s made, as it were, compromises along the way,” adapting even as it gains increasing acceptance.