The Montréal bagel is one of Canada’s most iconic and coveted snacks. Its origins are contested and murky. One theory holds that it was a Jewish-Viennese baker who came up with the first bagel recipe in the late 17th century. He designed a small bread in the shape of a riding stirrup (beugel, in Austrian German) as a gift to the King of Poland, John III Sobieski, who had recently staved off Ottoman forces from conquering his countrymen in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. From there, as the story goes, the beugel entered into the mainstream of Polish cuisine — for some reason it became a traditional gift for new mothers — and eventually travelled east, to Russia, where it was known as a bubliki and predominantly sold on crowded city streets.
Bagels Come to Montréal
Regardless of how the bagel actually came to be, there is no question that the Montréal bagel, as we know it, arrived in Montréal with the wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, most of them settling in the Mile End neighbourhood in the northeast side of the city. There are, however, varying stories about who in fact first introduced the bagel to the city. Some say it was Isadore Schlafman, whose father had run a bakery in Kiev, and who baked and sold bagels in a small shop in a laneway off of Saint-Laurent Boulevard; others swear it was Hyman Seligman, from Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia) who sold bagels by the dozen from a horse-drawn carriage throughout the Mile End.
Most likely, nobody will ever know the truth about who baked the first Montréal bagel.
Fairmount Bagels was opened by Schlafman in 1949, on Fairmount Street, and later renamed The Original Fairmount Bagel Factory. In 1957, Seligman and Myer Lewkowicz opened St. Viateur Bagel, one street north of Fairmount. Unsurprisingly, both bakeries — which are still in operation to this day — lay claim to producing the tastiest and most authentic bagels in Montréal. Both bakeries have loyal followings of customers.
Bagels Go Mainstream
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, North American bagels were almost exclusively produced and sold within Jewish communities. The first step towards expansion occurred in 1927 when Polish-born baker Harry Lender opened a bagel plant in New Haven, Connecticut. With increased levels of production, Lender began marketing bagels to non-Jewish venues; by the 1950s, Lender’s prepackaged bagels were available in non-kosher grocery stores. The word bagel, too, had entered into the mainstream, making an appearance in the 1951 Broadway comedy Bagel and Yox.
By the 1970s, bagels were being mass-produced by machines, frozen, and shipped to supermarkets across America in polyethylene bags of six. The popularization of the bagel spread across the border into Canada, unleashing the Montréal bagel from its strictly ethnic consumer base.
Unlike the New York bagel, however, little has changed about how the Montréal bagel is made today, despite the heightened demand. The dough in a Montréal bagel is boiled in honey water, hand-rolled, then baked in a wood-fire oven. The recipe contains malt flower and no salt or eggs. The result is a crispier, slightly sweeter, flatter, more compact bread than what comprises the more puffy, smooth-surfaced New York bagel.
It could be said that the Montréal bagel and New York bagel both possess characteristics that reflect the communities from which they were born. Uncomfortably flanked between the English ruling class and the francophone majority, the Jewish immigrant population of Montréal faced an onslaught of hostility throughout the first half of the 20th century, developing a thick skin and a tightly knit insularity and warmth — not unlike the form and texture of the Montréal bagel. The New York bagel, on the other hand, first baked on the frenetic, immigrant-laden streets of the Lower East Side, seems to fluff outwards in a grandiose gesture towards assimilation — the airy dough between its soft crust containing all the hope and delusion of the American Dream.
Debates about which bagel is superior — Montréal or New York — have raged for decades. Food critic Phyllis Richman declared in the Washington Post that “the best bagel in the Western Hemisphere is from Montreal, not New York,” whereas former New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton pitilessly dismissed the northern ring of bread. “I thought they were horrible,” she said. “They couldn’t even be called bagels.”
The Montréal Bagel in Popular Culture
There have been many literary references to the Montréal bagel, in works such as Saturday Night at The Bagel Factory and Other Stories, by Donald Bell. Most notably, in the film version of Mordecai Richler’s iconic novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Duddy, purchases a stack of bagels from a shop that closely resembles St. Viateur Bagel, during the opening credits.
Montréal bagels have, since their first incarnation, continued to evoke passion, inspiration and debate — and one imagines they will continue to do so well into the future. People who love them, love them a lot. In 2008, Montréal astronaut Greg Chamitoff packed a dozen and a half Fairmount bagels for his journey to the International Space Station.