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The Ancestry of a Bagel

Any time that my family gathers together, one thing remains constant: food. As a bold, chaotic, but always unconditionally loving Jewish family, the most pertinent question before each gathering is always “what are we eating?” Spreads of New York bagels (I swear the water makes them different) with the perfect ratio of crispy crust to chewy interior line the counters with every topping you can imagine. Special deliveries from family members in the New York Area are a must, as other bagels simply do not compare. Lox and red onion and capers and dill and every flavor of schmear you can think of sit beside the bagels, all combined to create the perfect breakfast bite. Sweet bagels topped with chocolate or cinnamon sugar partner perfectly with a fresh strawberry cream cheese, while the sharpness of an asiago bagel mingles with the tang of a cream cheese loaded with chives. The bagel is the most versatile, yet underappreciated carbohydrate, a canvas for experimentation at any mealtime.

Immersed in the Jesuit values of Boston College, I often lose sight of my Jewish roots. Just 4% of the Boston College population identifies as Jewish. However, I often am grounded again in my ancestry in the foods I choose to eat. My Sunday morning bagel and cream cheese may seem just as ordinary as the next. For me, though, this bagel has a special meaning. Each bite of my most favorite glutinous treat takes me back to years of family gatherings and time spent with the people I connect with most.  

The bagel we know today originated in Poland in the early 17th century. The word “bagel” is derived from the Yiddish word “beygl,” a variation of the German word for “ring.” While you can find a bagel at just about any grocery store, coffee shop, diner, and convenience store, not all bagels are created equal. Some are baked, some are boiled, some are even steamed. Factory bagels often come perfectly circular with a flawless cut out in the middle. Real, handmade bagels, though, often swell so much in cooking they just become a glorified bread roll, with no distinguishable ring shape. Even though the bagel is literally named to look like a ring, I truly believe these hole-less bagels are the best kind. Regional varieties of bagel have even emerged, ranging from the New York style to the Montreal style, and even a St. Louis style. A quintessential part of a weekend brunch, most Americans can say they’ve eaten at least one bagel in the past month, though most could not begin to identify where the round doughy delicacies’ roots lie. 

The first bite into a bagel’s crunchy exterior followed by the delight of a doughy interior sparks fireworks in my taste buds—there is simply nothing as fulfilling. As fad diets come in and out and culinary trends progress, the bagel should not fear; it will never lose its seat at Sunday brunch. I hope that it’s rich cultural background will one day rise to the forefront, and those so deeply appreciative of its creation will give credit where credit’s due. Next time you grab your carby-treat, make sure to think back to its 17th century roots across the Atlantic.  

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