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Opinion: UNESCO, consider the bagel

Bagels are displayed for sale at a Manhattan grocery store on Aug. 6, 2010, in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Bagels are displayed for sale at a Manhattan grocery store on Aug. 6, 2010, in New York City.

An urbane French friend taunted me recently.

"UNESCO has declared the French Baguette on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage products," he said. "But not the American bagel. This must upset you, n'est-ce pas?"

N'est-ce yes.

I know the bagel is not American-born. But a lot of the best things about America aren't. That's our story, isn't it? The first written record of bagels comes from the Jewish community in Krakow, Poland in the early 1600s — but bagels are now ubiquitous across America, with bagel shops on streets and in shopping malls, and bagels — or at least pale, squishy facsimiles — in grocery and convenience stores.

I've had bagels in Sitka, Alaska; Des Moines, Iowa; Rockford, Ill., and Salt Lake City, Utah. A salt bagel, in fact, not a mile from Temple Square. And yea verily it was good. Especially when you slather enough cream cheese on it to douse a forest fire.

You can find bagels plain, sesame, garlic, cinnamon raisin, pumpernickel, onion and Everything, which, I believe, means bits and pieces of whatever the Roomba just sucked up from the bakery floor, scattered wantonly across the rounds of boiled dough.

And there's a miscellany of newer flavors to make you gasp and exclaim, "Only in America!" Asiago, cheddar-jalapeno, rainbow, and — I hardly dare speak its name — blueberry.

Fanny Singer, the great food writer, told us this week, "The recent efflorescence of excellent hipster-run bagel joints across the country speaks to the eternal zeitgeistiness of the bagel."

Efflorescence and zeitgeistiness in the same sentence. Only on NPR!

I just had a Sriracha bagel. I know it's not authentic. But the stomach doesn't care. And there is something authentically American about a Thai-chili paste seasoned bagel. It's tasty attestation that cultures from all over the world come to America, mix, mash, share and make something new together.

Mixing is the recipe for America. That's why I believe the American bagel belongs on the same UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list as French baguettes, Cuban rum and North African couscous.

"Very well then," as Walt Whitman wrote, "I contradict myself." As my wife and I tell our daughters in our Chinese-French-Irish-Jewish, and quintessentially American family, "You contain multitudes."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.