THE HISTORY OF NYC BAGELS AND WHERE TO EAT THEM
Behold the New York bagel and its long, fabled history. Dating back to ancient Egypt, the glossy dense bread made its Manhattan cameo in the early 19th century after an influx of Eastern European immigrants started a union called The International Beigel Bakers Union with the sole purpose to make, yes, bagels. Once upon a time, the Lower East Side’s Orchard and Delancey Streets were once dotted with bagel shops. “New York City also had a huge Jewish community,” says Black Seed Bagel Executive Chef Dianna Daoheung. “Bagel baking used to be very sacred, and in order to even be a baker, you would have to be male, Jewish and in the union.” After a massive strike in the 1930s, bakers were replaced by folks from “other ethnic communities, which began the evolution of bagels becoming a bread for all,” says Daoheung.
Once the floodgates opened, old-school venues like the now-defunct H&H Bagels jump-started the movement in 1972 by opening their first specialty storefront dedicated to producing freshly-baked, perfectly ring-shaped bagels. And, by the ’80s, hungry New Yorkers had fallen in love with the pillowy treat. Then came the cascade of casual mainstays like Ess-A-Bagel, Murray’s Bagels, and the beloved 100-year-old Lower East Side branch of Russ and Daughters, which continues to serve the iconic breakfast-into-lunch staple, often using toppings such as chopped scallions and caviar cream cheese, and, of course, its famed silky, hand-cut lox.
There are also new variations. Montreal-born Black Seed (pictured) came along with a hybrid mix, incorporating the texture of a New York bagel with a smaller size, boiled and baked in a wood-fired oven for the ultimate chew. “Our dough is very New York-style, made from sourdough starter and boiled in New York water,” explains Daoheung. Noting that unique Canadian spin, Black Seed tweaks the time-honored Gotham preparation by first hand-rolling, then boiling the dough in a kettle of honey water and baking in a wood-fired oven for a smoky, crisp crust.
And while the delicious taste of the bagel has long been attributed to the city’s water, many brick-and-mortars outside of NYC often skimp on ingredients like malt, quality flour, and even salt. Take Black Seed again, they mix King Arthur high-gluten flour to score the chewy texture on the outside and softness inside, while the brand’s gluten-free bagel uses Cup4Cup flour. Really, though, New Yorkers all seem to agree that like the slice of their favorite pizza, toothy bagels are the stuff of legend. From sesame to onion to everything to…really, it’s a question of whether you toast yours or not.
Words Kate Donnelly