Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A city divided by language and politics found common ground in its Jewish bakeries.
In Montreal, bagels are a matter of identity. They’re the first stop on any food tour, mentioned in every guide book, and fought over, again and again, in local and international media: Which bakery’s got the best, St. Viateur or Fairmount? Compared to Montreal’s, are New York bagels really worth their salt? (I vouch for the slightly sweet, less chewy dough of Quebec.)
With such global attention, it’s easy to forget that bagels are an essentially Jewish food. In Montreal, where Jews make up just two percent of the population, the humble ring’s star status is even more remarkable. According to Olivier Bauer, an associate professor of theology at the Université de Montréal, the bagel’s ascent beyond its immigrant origins is a symbol of the city’s mixed cultural heritage. "They’re a hybridization of Jewish, Central European, and North American cuisines," Bauer, who recently presented research on the bagel’s place in Montreal history, says.
Originating in Poland, bagels probably first entered North America through the hands of Jewish immigrants at the end of the 19th century. In Montreal, those immigrants found work in the garment industry near the Boulevard St. Laurent. As laborers, bagels were ideal snacks: cheap, tasty, easy to produce, and kosher (containing extra ingredients besides flour and water, they didn’t require a blessing to be said before eating, as regular bread does in Jewish tradition). Many theologians consider bagels to have a spiritual symbolism, as well: “Like God, there’s no beginning or end, no top or bottom,” Bauer says.
But ambitious bagel bakers knew they couldn’t make their fortunes with Jewish clientele alone. That’s why, as the 20th century progressed, they conscientiously worked to disassociate bagels from Jewish culture. This was true all over the world, but perhaps uniquely so in Quebec, where French Quebecois nationalism—with an anti-Semitic streak—put pressure on all non-Francophone populations. In the 1960s, Jews left Montreal en masse, leaving delis and bagel bakeries in financial and cultural hot water. To quite literally survive, bakers had to expand their reach across cultures and religions. Murray Lender, of the famous American frozen bagel company, tapped into this sentiment in the 1960s, writing:
A bagel has versatility. When most people call it a Jewish product, it hurts us. It’s a roll, a roll with personality. If you must be ethnic you can call it a Jewish English muffin with personality.
Bauer says this is probably why, even today, Montreal’s most famous bagel bakeries don’t even advertise themselves as Kosher. And for much of the 20th century, bagels were also geographically nonpartisan there—situated along the Boulevard St. Laurent, between the Francophone Montrealers, Anglophone Montrealers, and Jewish immigrant neighborhoods. At a time when political tensions ran along linguistic and cultural lines, bagels were a neutral meeting-point between parties.
Sadly, non-Jewish Montrealers who stopped in for bagels didn’t (and don’t now) necessarily venture any further than that into the Jewish community. “Eating Jewish food does not necessarily make you more sympathetic to those who produce it,” Bauer told the Université de Montréal. “Besides, most people who buy bagels in a bagel shop or eat smoked meat in a deli probably don't know they're eating an artifact of Jewish culinary heritage."
Even so, out of all the dishes produced by Montreal’s many immigrant communities, the doughy rings emerged as iconic. On top of all their history, Bauer believes bagels match the Quebecois approach to dining as few other foods do—which anyone who’s ever stood in the tiny vestibule at St. Viateur Bakery, eating a poppyseed bagel out of a paper bag, probably understands.
“Bagels aren’t too complicated or expensive, you don’t have to dress up to go get it, you can bring it home or go straight back to work,” Bauer says. “It’s the same with poutine: it’s not haute cuisine, but it’s good. It’s not complicated or elaborate. It’s the simplicity that people love.”