Bagels and Their Cousin Bialys

The bagel (sometimes spelled beigel), is a bread product created by Polish Jews and is in the shape of a doughnut. The first documented rolls with a hole appeared in ancient Egypt and areas of the Mediterranean and were usually soft. Lacking cream cheese, the Egyptians dipped them in spices or ate them plain. Eventually a crisper version was created and flavored with spices before baking, similar to our pretzels. And sadly, explorer Marco Polo cannot claim credit for bringing them back to Rome from his travels to China. The Chinese were not eating bagels or even leavened bread in the Middle Ages.

Bialys are the simpler cousin of bagels, easier to prepare and baked, not boiled. They have an indentation rather than a hole in the middle, which is usually sprinkled with a few spices or onion bits, are thinner, softer and contain sandwich fillings better. Bagels, on the other hand, are more complicated, as the dough must be refrigerated for 24 hours, then shaped, boiled and baked. But there is no denying the popularity of bagels, rising high above the bialy, which is usually confined to Jewish delis in larger metropolitan areas (which means if you live in Montana or South Dakota, you probably won’t be eating bialys anytime soon).

Also originating in Poland, bialys actually made their way to America before bagels with the influx of Polish immigrants in the 1800s. They soon appeared in bakeries and small food shops in New York City. Along with bagels, they were especially popular among immigrants. Picture those homesick Poles and Jews visiting the many bakeries around New York and buying a bagel or bialy to munch on as they traveled to work.

Outside of New York, bagels were pretty much unknown until after WWII, when they started to appear in cities, usually at local Jewish delis. Philadelphia Cream Cheese capitalized on their growing popularity and marketed their dairy spread as the perfect accompaniment. Layer on some smoked salmon, an onion slice and a few capers and you had a meal.

As more families wanted that roll with the hole in the 50s and 60s, bagel pioneer Lender’s Bagels answered the demand and expanded across the country, offering packaged bagels which were sold frozen, fresh and refrigerated. It was a bonanza for those who couldn’t locate a deli close by. In the 70s and 80s, bagel shops began to spring up, offering numerous flavors. Hungry customers could enjoy one toasted with a cup of coffee on site, or just grab a dozen assorted to go, along with several kinds of cream cheese for a “schmear.” As thousands of Americans tried to wean themselves away from richer and more sugary doughnuts and sweet rolls for breakfast, the bagel seemed a perfect solution. Soon bagel bakeries became mainstream and were no longer considered ethnic. Even doughnut giant Dunkin’ Donuts has added bagels to their roster along with their many doughnut varieties. Large franchises, such as Bruegger’s and Einstein’s, now proliferate in many communities.

It’s a shame that Thomas Jefferson, always ahead of the crowd with new and delicious European discoveries, didn’t live to see this popular American bread. He surely would have loved those bagels and served them at the White House. Or maybe he would have been a bialy guy. You decide.

Growing up in a large city, author Dale Phillip enjoyed both bagels and bialys from an early age. She confesses her favorite is cinnamon and raisin with plain cream cheese. Maybe a pumpernickel thrown in once in awhile with some sliced turkey and cheese. Before bagels became mainstream, her mother used to drive 30 miles to a Jewish bakery and buy four dozen bagels at a time and freeze them. They were a breakfast favorite and were usually eaten with butter and homemade jam.

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