February 12, 2009

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The Bagel, The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, by Maria Balinska, (2008, Yale University Press, 220 pages)
By Amy Diaz letters@hippopress.com

My unwillingness to ever even attempt a no-carb or low-carb diet can be summed up in one word: “bagel.” (Actually, for complete accuracy, it’s probably more like “bagel and pizza,” but “bagel” is enough to end the discussion for me.)

In a pinch, I’ll take a mediocre bagel, toasted and fancied up with butter or cream cheese. Whenever possible, get me a fresh, still-hot-from-the-oven bagel with nothing — it is food perfection.

That any bagels at all are available to me in northern New England — or anywhere in America — is the result of at least a millennium of history, as Maria Balinska tells it in The Bagel. History of Poland, where the name married to the general idea of round bread with a hole it in probably sort of got its start (more on that in a bit). History of Europe, where the ebbs and flows of religious intolerance and economic well-being created churn in the Jewish population, spreading the idea of the bagel around. History of America, where many Jewish immigrants started heading in the late 19th century. History of American advertising, which took an item familiar to big city dwellers and people of a specific ethnicity and made it as Every-American as, well, as pizza, burritos and egg rolls.

But back to the bagel’s sort-of beginning in Poland. Round bread with a hole in it and with a hard enough consistency to keep for a while (particularly handy for travel) has appeared in a variety of cultures (Arab, Roman, Chinese) in ways that may or may not be connected to each other, Balinska says. She lays out the histories of these breads and then explains the bagel’s rise in Poland and Europe in general, along the way offering a solid history of the region. For me, this is some of the best kind of food writing — where the item itself ties into a people’s and place’s history and gives you insight not only into, for example, why there’s a hole (perhaps to make it easier to for street hawkers) but also into the history of the people who made it then and the people who enjoy it now.

The gold standard of this kind of food item examination is, for me, The Bialy Eaters, by Mimi Sheraton. That book included a search for people, residents of Bialystock in Poland, mainly, who remember the bialy as it was before the war and before the community that supported the “authentic” bialy was destroyed. You can’t beat that kind of visceral drama, where the bialy became a symbol of loss and survival. But The Bagel offers some of that along with a survey of a bigger span of history and even touches on the modern foodie debates that pit New York against Montreal, London and even Poland again. And while I think I might have liked a couple of recipes, which can be the best way to objectively measure how bagels have changed over the years, I enjoyed the picture of bagels and their place in culinary history as she provided it. In fact, I literally lusted over the picture not only of the whole bagel on the book’s cover but the bagel with a bite mark on the back; a photo that, like the book itself, gives you a sense of the qualities that make this such an enduring kind of food. Hmm, I wonder if book covers are low-carb. B — Amy Diaz