Almost all breadstuffs come with a history, often happily or fiercely disputed. A few manage to rise, literally and figuratively, out of their history to settle into a solid cultural identity. If they can do that and remain delicious, well, that’s history worth eating. The Bagel is just such a food. Its origin is shrouded in the ever shifting mists of time with some food writers opining that there’s hieroglyphic evidence that even the Ancient Egyptians had bagel (or at least a round breadstuff with a hole).
The more common story sets the bagel’s genesis around 1683 in the shop of a Polish baker in Krakow who celebrated King Jan Sobieski’s dramatic rout of Turkish Invaders at the Battle of Vienna by sending him a roll formed in the shape of the kingly stirrups. The homage was a double whammy of gratitude from the baker as Sobieski was responsible for allowing Jews to bake bread within Krakow’s city walls.
True or not, the bagel has remained identified with Jewish culture and, for better or for worse, is often used as a metaphor for the Jewish experience.
But ever since Murray Lender and his brothers started shipping frozen bagels across America, which he called the “Jewish English Muffin,” via their mass expansion of their father’s business, H. Lender & Sons, the bagel as become part of the mainstream American diet. And that’s the way the great American melting pot should work – acceptance, inclusion, and celebration. Our only caveat to that story is that today, thankfully, there’s almost no good reason to eat a frozen bagel.
Over the weekends, our brunch menu includes toasted Flour Head bagels available with cream cheese or the classic combination of cream cheese, lox, capers, and onion. The bagels are fresh from the bakery and have the unmistakable chew and flavor that makes this bread so very lovely to eat. But sometimes you don’t want to get out of the house on the weekend – that happens to all of us – and if you’re lucky enough to make that happen, there’s still no reason to resort to the freezer. Just plan ahead and swing by Three Rivers Market, just ripe or Kroger Bearden to pick a personal supply of Flour Head’s bagel.
The plain bagel is a classic, chewy example of why we love this breadstuff; but the bagel is also available sprinkled with sesame seeds or with a particularly rewarding, slightly sweet permutation that includes the imminently satisfying combination of cinnamon and raisin. And while we love all of Flour Head’s bagels equally, it’s hard not to favor the Sour Cherry Walnut bagel with a little extra adoration. The combination of tart-sweet cherry with walnut makes an acutely delicious partner with the flavor and texture of the basic bagel. It’s beautiful, toasted or not, with cream cheese and makes beautiful music with lots of toppings from butter and brie to prosciutto and pear. It’s also just fine by itself, straight out of the bag while you ride home.
But at Tomato Head, we’re having some tasteful fun in honor of National Bagel Day – we’re celebrating with BBLTs! (You’ll have already figured out that the extra “B” is for bagel.) Each restaurant is serving its own riff on this all American adaptation; Downtown, you’ll find the classic sandwich ramped up with the addition of pimento cheese, while at the Gallery the “T” stands for Tomato Jam. Both of these options give the schmear a nicely southern attitude – and what better way to celebrate the Bagel than by dressing it up in homespun fashion?
There’s one more interesting thing that happens to foodstuffs if they find a place in the right heart, and that’s poetry. If you haven’t read Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Watermelon or Ode to Salt, then you owe it to food loving self to check them out. But the bagel, too, has friends who frame their thoughts in verse. So we leave you to ponder the bagel through the words of David Ignatow, a celebrated poet who started his career in a butcher shop and is remembered for his popular verse about common folk.
The Bagel Poem
I stopped to pick up the bagel
rolling away in the wind,
annoyed with myself
for having dropped it
as if it were a portent.
Faster and faster it rolled,
with me running after it
bent low, gritting my teeth,
and I found myself doubled over
and rolling down the street
head over heels, one complete somersault
after another like a bagel
and strangely happy with myself.