November 6, 2008

The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread

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As anyone who has ever eaten brunch in a dining hall knows, indulgence typically inspires a full stomach and a guilty conscience. The delicious sensation of biting into soft, fluffy carbs leads to contentment, but at the price of more calories than is enjoyable to contemplate. Yet there is a way to have your bagel and eat it, too. The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, by Maria Balinska, is just as absorbing as the real thing, but unlike that schmear of cream cheese, it is calorie free.
As Balinska traces the bagel’s journey from its ancient roots to frozen supermarket staple, you will find yourself stuffing your face with facts at every turn. Even those who prefer consuming edibles to literature will be intrigued by comparisons to the Italian tarallo, a medieval cousin of the bagel with a harder, denser texture that is still eaten today, and the Roman buccellatum, one of the bagel’s possible ancestors. The bagel may even have descended from girde, golden circular bread with an indentation rather than a hole, baked by Muslim Uigurs in China and traded on the Silk Road. While alluding to such speculations, Balinska gives most credence to historical sources, which treat the obwarzanek of medieval Poland as the bagel’s most likely predecessor. She treads carefully between historical evidence and entertaining but more questionable sources, including everything from civil documents to rhymes and folk tales in her methodical quest down the bagel family tree.
For Balinska, the bagel is more than a donut-shaped bread. She compares the bagel’s journey to “the classic tale of the successful immigrant: his quest for acceptance and fortune and his triumph against the odds … an eloquent metaphor for the experience of Eastern European Jewry.” Balinska’s compelling narrative not only persuades the reader of the cultural and historical significance of the bagel, but also incorporates more tones than there are swirls of cinnamon in a cinnamon raisin bagel.
The humorous yet profound nature of the round bread is captured in Balinska’s straightforward prose. She moves effortlessly from prosaic to poetic, offering clear explanations of baking techniques while also evoking the elegant nature of the roll: bagel rings waiting to be baked are “glistening and white, shrinking at the touch.” At the same time, she understands that “the bagel is incapable of taking itself too seriously.” Dark times in the Warsaw ghetto are balanced out with bagel cabaret and a playful description of the routine a bagel salesman used to try to market frozen bagels: dancing on a supermarket executive’s desk in underwear marked with the words “BUY BAGELS.” (It worked.)
Reading this book is a perfect cure for the urge to curl up with something warm and cozy. Balinska’s writing conveys all the toasty deliciousness of a bagel without any of the guilt. Plus, it’s technically a history, so you don’t have to justify reading it instead of doing your homework. What better way to procrastinate, even after brunch is over?