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Object lesson No 94

A bagel might look like a simple bread roll with a hole, but this unassuming staple of Jewish bakery and culinary icon of east coast America has a colourful history to belie its bland appearance.

In 1683, the city of Vienna was under siege when the king of Poland, Jan Sobieski, and his cavalry came to the aid of the Austrian capital. Having repelled the Turkish invaders, King Jan and his men were feeling peckish. A grateful baker came up with a fitting tribute to his horsemanship, a stirrup-shaped bread, and named it after the Austrian word (beugel) for the object it resembled.

Even earlier, in 1610, women in the Polish city of Krakow were being given bagel-like bread rings during childbirth - whether for sustenance or to bite on during labour is not clear. People who don't appreciate the bagel's chewiness unkindly call it the concrete doughnut, but it is entirely unrelated to its sweet tasting lookalike.

The bagel's characteristic texture and shiny crust are the result of an unusual preparation. A simple dough of flour, water, sugar, yeast and salt is rolled out, shaped into a ring, then submerged in boiling water for a few seconds before being browned in an oven. Bagels are the only bread that is baked this way and only ever come in a circular shape, symbolising good luck and long life.

Bagel-making skills were exported to the United States with the first wave of Jewish emigrants in the late 19th century, and the bagel quickly became the staple takeaway food of east coast cities. In 1907, 300 bagelmakers formed the International Bagel Bakers Union, declaring that only sons of recognised bakers could be apprenticed to learn the craft, a backbreaking task that was performed entirely by hand, until the invention in the 1960s of bagel-making machines, which saw the bagel's popularity spread far beyond its spiritual home in New York delicatessens.

Topped with poppy seeds or fried onion, filled with cream cheese or smoked salmon, bagels are now supermarket staples. But not everyone is aware of the bagel's significance, or even its existence. When a bagel-making company polled a group of teenagers, half of them didn't know what a bagel was, and one thought it was a type of dog.

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