There is something about circles. Circles symbolise wholeness, integration and continuity. There’s something right about them. Circles are deep, man. They really are. Human beings have been more or less obsessed with circles for millennia, so it was only a matter of time before someone made something circular to eat.
Circular foods are spoken of in almost reverent tones. You don’t look at a slice of rye bread or a rusk and feel the same way you do about a bagel, for instance. Round things are fun and, when they have a hole in the middle, they’re more than that – they’re funny.
The bagel is perhaps second only to the wheel as humanity’s most ingenious circular invention. Like everything important, the bagel has several names and a complicated ancestry. Many have claimed to be lord of this ring. It seems at one point or another pretty much everyone has staked a claim to it. It is generally accepted, however, that the first authentic bagel was rolled in the Jewish district of Krakow, Poland in 1610. The word bagel – strictly speaking, “beigel” – derives from the Yiddish word beigen, or ‘to bend’. This fact, like most facts about bagels, is disputed.
Who did it first is arguably less important than who has mastered it since, and these days, Montreal and New York City stake equally compelling claims to having clocked the bagel game.
Both varieties are boiled before being baked (frankly, if it isn’t boiled first it’s not a bagel) but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The Canadians go for a bigger hole, spike their water with honey and bake theirs in wood-fired ovens while New Yorkers often knead some malt syrup into the dough, add salt and leave the hole small and a bit rude-looking.
Montreal-style bagels come out smaller, crunchier and sweeter than their more savoury, pillowy cousins from across the border. Either way, eating a bagel – preferably soon after it comes out of the oven – slathered with a schmear of cream cheese is a spiritual experience.
People love bagels even without knowing exactly why. When we opened Max Bagels, there was only one bagel place in Cape Town and it was in the far-flung neighbourhood of Kalk Bay. The institution that was New York Bagels in Sea Point had closed and it wasn’t clear whether they would reopen (they since have) and our friends from Kleinsky’s in Sea Point were still a few months away from opening. That time has come to be known as The Great Bagel Drought of 2014. In spite of this gaping hole in the supply, or perhaps because of it, we were welcomed with an almost weird excitement.
Doughnuts, being similarly shaped, are similarly hallowed. Yes, they are deep fried and covered in something very sweet but there’s more to their popularity than cinnamon sugar. Offer me that exact substance and flavour combination in a flat square shape and I’m going to ask for the menu back. The circular shape has often been attributed holy significance. Said to signify the circle of life, it makes a lot of sense that bagels are often present at weddings, funerals and other beginning and end ceremonies. Bagels matter to people. Some writers have gone deeper into the history of bagels than might be considered a sensible use of their time. British journalist Maria Balinska is one such writer having taken it upon herself to write “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread” in 2006. I’ve yet to see 300 pages dedicated to hot dog rolls.
Balinska hints at possible boiled (or steamed) and baked ancestors to the bagel from as far afield as southern Italy and China. The Polish Jewish bagel also had a Christian relative, she found: the fantastically named ‘obwarzanek’. That the bagel survived to become as popular as it has and the obwarzanek didn’t might be down to nothing more complicated than pronunciation.
Meaning aside, there are compelling practical reasons for circular-shaped breads. Baked as they are at a high heat, the hole in the middle of a bagel allows an even distribution of heat throughout the dough. The hole also made transporting bagels easier; before bags were a thing, bakers used to tie a piece of string around the desired order. Until not all that long ago, it was also the done thing for traders to display bagels on wooden rods, a bit like an abacus.
Bagels are popular all over the world and as good as they are to eat, I think that popularity has as much to do with what they look like. It feels good to make something round with a hole in it. Like an ancient ritual, it feels good and right. Circles are deep, man.
Matthew Freemantle is the co-owner of Max Bagels, 120 Bree Street, Cape Town.