A Bit about Bagels
The history of the bagel is surrounded by myth and legend but seems to begin in the 12th century. One version has it that a Church ban on commercial Jewish bakeries was responsible for its appearance. In 1264 Polish grand duke Bolesław the Pious issued his Statute of Kalisz or Charter for Jews of Grand Poland which allowed Jews to freely by, sell and touch bread in common with Christians. In response a group of Polish bishops forbade Christians from buying any food at all from Jews, as it were anathema. As Moses ben Israel Isserles put it in the 16th century” “it is preferable to live on dry bread and in peace in Poland” than to remain in better conditions in lands more dangerous for Jews. At some point Jews were allowed to work with bread which was boiled, and they created the bagel to comply with his ruling, according to this version. In 1610 the first mention appears of the word “bagel” in Yiddish in the written sources, in regulations issued by the Jewish council of Kraków, which stated that bagels were to be given as a gift to women in childbirth.
Whatever the case, the bagel was popular among Jews in Eastern Europe, and came with them to America in the 19th and 20th centuries.
How the Bagel with Lox Replaced Eggs Benedict
The Jewish affinity for salted or smoked fish is based on a number of factors.
First, fish is considered pareve, and can be eaten in a dairy or meat meal. (Note: while fish and meat may be eaten in the same meal, they cannot be eaten together.)
Second, unlike meat, which has many requirements for slaughtering and preparing it in a kosher fashion, you can buy a whole kosher fish from a non-Jewish store.
Third, smoking or salting the fish minimizes the need for refrigeration.
Before there was lox, there was herring. It was only once the Jews emigrated to the U.S., and salmon was relatively cheaper and easier to come by than herring, that lox became a favorite. So, despite the fact that etymology of the word lox is generally credited to Yiddish laks (although it is phonetically identical to lachs in German and Old English læx), there appears to be no special Jewish connection to it prior to the early 1900s in the United States.
The Cream Cheese Connection
Gil Marks, a specialist in Jewish culinary history, explains that the very unkosher American classic breakfast eggs benedict (two halves of an English muffin topped with ham or bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce) became popular in New York City in the 1930s. Eggs benedict itself is a dish mired in mystery, and seems to have had many variations over the centuries, originally the preferred breakfast of pope Benedict XIII (pope from 1724 to 1730. Pietro Orsini was seventy-six years old when he was elected Pope. The aged pontiff’s reign can be remembered for four accomplishments. Benedict cracked down on the Roman lotteries; forbade the cardinals to wear wigs; repealed the world wide smoking ban set by Pope Urban VIII and lived on a diet of poached eggs and dry toast because of his chronic digestive problems. Since a poached egg and dry toast diet was rather bland, the eggs were often served with a lemon sauce), through the earlier French version oeufs bénédictine which didn’t use ham but salted cod, to token appearances at American dining and hotel establishments in the late 1800s using either ham, bacon, Canadian bacon, salmon or other fish. The eggs benedict fad only really took off in the 1920s and was centered around New York, where Edward Bernays, the “father of advertising” and the nephew of Sigmund Freud, took a scientific approach to a very early marketing campaign ordered by the Beech-Nut Packing Company to get Americans to eat more bacon. Bernays managed the get the meme of “bacon and eggs” as a hearty, all-American breakfast to go viral, whereas studies then showed Americans preferred a light breakfast of fruit, a bun and perhaps coffee or tea. Bernays later successes included a campaign to get American women to smoke cigarettes as a public proclamation of their rights, a parallel to pope Benedict XIII’s lifting of the global ban on smoking.
Kosher-keeping Jewish people couldn’t get excited about the eggs benedict with ham craze, although the Council of Jewish Women’s “Neighborhood Cook Book” (Press of Bushong & Co., Portland, Oregon, 1914) contains a recipe with ham on page 62. Lox slices on bagels are a natural and easy substitution, replacing salmon for ham, cream cheese for hollandaise sauce and sliced bagel halves for sliced English muffins.
Not a radical departure from the eggs benedict variations known as eggs Atlantic, eggs Hemingway and eggs Copenhagen (also known as eggs royale and eggs Montreal in New Zealand) which uses smoked salmon instead of ham, but a combination with a taste and a charm all its own.
Neither eggs benedict nor lox on bagels have shown any signs of declining popularity in recent years, but the only place to get real lox on bagels in Lithuania is the Bagel Shop Café on the first floor of the Lithuanian Jewish Community in Vilnius! Bon appétit!