A Fish and Bread Journey: The natural and social history of bagels and lox

July 15, 2012

story by Heather Smith
tintypes by Michael Shindler / Photobooth
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Eighteen.

THE SALMON TRAVELED THE FARTHEST. Its oldest known ancestor in the genus Salmonidae swam through the waters of the Eocene, back when Australia was still a part of Antarctica, North America was still a part of Europe, and India was just beginning its long and persistent attempt to hump its way over China, smashing itself into the Himalayan mountains in the process.

When the continents began to move, they took the salmon with them. When humans showed up, they noticed the salmon, many of which had developed an eccentric habit of  migrating from freshwater out to the ocean and then back again. Salmon navigate their way back to where they were hatched by the smell of their past. Olfactory memory draws them to their place of origin, until they reproduce, at which point their bodies flood with massive doses of corticosteroids, causing them to disintegrate in the water. This drive to migrate set humans in motion as well. The Celio Falls in Wyoming was, archaeologists say, the Wall Street of the West. For 15,000 years, tribes from all across North America converged there during the spawning season, building platforms to spear and net the 20 million salmon that raced up the Columbia river.

Their smoked and dried carcasses became both food and currency. Preserving the salmon by soaking it in saltwater brine came from the Scandanavians but — inexplicably — caught on with Jewish immigrants from Europe before completely failing to catch on with their descendents. Today, what we call “lox” is almost always smoked — more like what happened at Celio Falls than in Norway. It is sliced about 5 mm thick from the belly of the salmon.

The capers — compact flowerbuds, pickled before they bloom — came from elsewhere. Greece. Or Italy. The word caper is so close to the hebrew for “desire” that opinions vary as to whether King Solomon is talking about pickles or longing.

The bagels came from coal-fired ovens underneath Hester and Rivington. The men who baked them worked 14 hour days, seven days a week. At the time, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely inhabited places on earth. The bakers slept between the mounds of rising dough, while every day, more boats pulled up to Ellis Island, disgorging more people. They arrived homesick, and the bakeries sold food to that homesickness.

The dough was made from wheat that grew on the plains of Kansas. It made a dough so stiff that the bakers kneaded it with their feet. The bakeries got so hot, especially in summer, that the bakers worked practically naked.Sometimes the bakers would collapse from heatstroke — people called to the scene described infernos inhabited by colonies of rats and cockroaches. Coal ash drifted through the air like confetti. The eggs were maggoty.

The bagels came from coal-fired ovens underneath Hester and Rivington.

In the late 1800s, bagel makers began trying to form a union. They wanted a minimum wage, a 10-hour workday. Dough was doused in kerosene and set on fire. Bricks were thrown, by both sides. When their goals were finally accomplished, in 1907, historian Maria Balinska writes that a parade of five thousand people marched through the Lower East Side, carrying a loaf of bread 15 feet long and 5 feet wide.

Bagel makers became the most highly paid bakers in New York. They still worked 10 hours a day in a basement next to a coal-fired oven, but they now made three times the median wage in New York City. Petitioners to Local 338 had to prove they could roll 830 bagels in an hour, or one every 4 seconds.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that preservatives created bagels that stayed fresh for more than a few hours, and engineers created mixers that didn’t tear themselves apart trying to work the dough. By then, the bagel was no longer the food of the homesick. It was American enough that the bombing around the circumference of the city of Haiphong, Vietnam, was described at the Pentagon as the “bagel strategy.”

Other signs that the bagel was becoming assimilated: the wedding. In 1984, the Lenders brothers, already selling $65 million of bagels a year in supermarkets across America, marched an eight-foot bagel down the aisle and gave its hand to a tub of Philadelphia cream cheese. The company was being given away in marriage to Kraft’s retail food group.

The first cream cheese in America was made in 1872, in Chester, NY — at least according to Kraft’s own food lore. The dairy owner named it Philadelphia, because food from Philadelphia was believed to be of better quality than food from New York.

The onions came over as seeds in someone’s pocket. The first domesticated onion in the Americas was, supposedly, planted by a member of Christopher Columbus’s expedition, in 1492.

You can buy something suspiciously similar to a bagel from Uigher merchants along the old silk route in China. The texture is reported to be only slightly different — chewier, and more dense. As early as 1397, you could buy a bagel-shaped bread in Italy called the taralli — though it was reported to be both sweeter and harder.

The circular nature of ring breads inspired philosophizing: they symbolized life, death, yearning, good fortune, inclusiveness, solitude, union, the hole at the center of all existence. But they were road food, eaten by pilgrims and traveling merchants, carried while stale and then dunked in a hot liquid when they needed to become soft enough to eat. The staleness was a form of preservation and aided in transportation — the hard rings could be strung together and carried, like beads on a necklace, the same way that bagel sellers would carry them through the Lower East Side centuries later.

Today, debates rage over whether there are any authentic bagels left in America. In 2010, the Mile End restaurant in Brooklyn began picking up loads of bagels in Montreal and driving them to New York under cover of darkness. The Montreal bagel, the story went, had never became popular, and thus never assimilated, and so the recipe had changed little from the European original.

The circular nature of ring breads inspired philosophizing: they symbolized life, death, yearning, good fortune, inclusiveness, solitude, union, the hole at the center of all existence.

Their arrival was greeted with curiosity and no small amount of  disdain. Seventy years after the bagel arrived, more or less, in North America, it had drifted in so many directions that the term “authentic” had become suspect. By the 1950s, “bagels and lox” had become an insult —a disparaging term used by Jewish immigrants to describe their counterparts who had become too American. Bagels and lox had no analogue in the old country. It was food as collage —pickled Italian flower buds and Scandinavian-style fish heaped over English-style cheese. It had traveled as far as the salmon, and become something entirely new in the journey. What could you be homesick for when you ate it? Unless it was homesickness for the melting pot itself.



HEATHER SMITH is a Meatpaper editor. She is currently at work on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.

MICHAEL SHINDLER is a San Francisco-based photographer specializing in tintypes and co-owner of Photobooth, perhaps the world’s only tintype portrait studio open to the general public. Learn more at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eighteen.


Meat Up: Kitchen Stories

July 15, 2012

illustration by Cy de Groat
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Eighteen 

HERE AT MEATPAPER, we’ve always been interested in the relationship between taste and memory. For this installment of “Meat Up,” we requested stories about the powerful memories that specific meaty flavors evoke, and the recipes associated with those flavors. Our inbox was inundated with nostalgia: sense memories of grandparents and exes, stories thick with the vapor of simmering sauce that fogs the windowpanes of recollection. It was a challenge to winnow them down, but here is a sampling.

I used to joke that I was married to Daniel Boone, someone who kept us supplied with fresh venison and salmon from our fishing boat. Friends would stop by to visit and knowingly bring their own burgers from McDonald’s, even though my husband was generous and willing to go out to the garage and slice off backstrap (the best cut) from the most recent deer he’d hung from the rafters. He knew how to cure the meat so that it never tasted gamey. I just wished he’d thought to bring it inside wrapped in paper, or even a bowl, when there were guests present. He was known to just carry it in his hand, blood dripping a path to the kitchen counter.

My daughter called store-bought meat “gutty.” After some bad venison at someone else’s house, her mantra at age four became,“I’m a vegetarian unless Daddy kills it.”

But things happen — mistakes were made, as they say — and we eventually divorced. As part of my child support payment, I get freezer boxes of venison and salmon every year. When the shipment arrives, I pull out my dank and weathered copy of Cooking Alaskan, glad that I no longer have to read the section about how to “butcher at home.” The venison arrives wrapped in freezer paper, labeled and dated. When I’m feeling sentimental, I think about the trail of blood and can’t help but remember how much work goes into feeding a family and keeping them happy.

As part of my child support payment, I get freezer boxes of venison and salmon every year.

Cranberry Meat Loaf from Cooking Alaskan
Courtesy of Mrs. Aline Strutz

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cranberry sauce
1 1/2 pounds ground venison, moose, or caribou
1/2 pound ground smoked ham (store bought)
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup whole lowbush cranberries
3/4 cup cracker crumbs
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons diced onion
3 bay leaves

Spread sugar over bottom of greased loaf pan. Mash cranberry sauce and spread over sugar. Combine remaining ingredients except bay leaves. shape into a loaf and place in pan. Place bay leaves on top of loaf. Bake for one hour at 350°F (175°C, for our Canadian neighbors). Remove bay leaves before serving.

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Public radio reporter


I ONCE HAD A BOYFRIEND WHO WAS OBSESSED WITH BARBECUE. Carolina style was his favorite: mounds of slow-cooked pork dressed in slinky sauce and piled on pillowy white rolls. He looked at my grandfather’s sauce recipe with chagrin. Where is it from, he wondered, staring at a typed list of ingredients that included vinegars (what kind?), waters (how much?), and liquid smoke.

My grandfather moved to Texas from California during the Depression to work in the oilfields. I don’t know if his recipe is for authentic Texas ’cue. I don’t know if he wrote it himself, cut it from the Houston newspaper, or stole it from a friend. But I do know this: as the thick sauce simmers on my stove, childhood memories bubble. I am five, spread on the prickly Texas grass in my grandparents’ backyard, watching flying squirrels jump from tree to tree. I am 12, swimming in the warm Gulf Coast while my grandparents walk hand in hand on the beach. I am 16, watching my cousin slather brisket with sauce for the meal that will follow my grandfather’s funeral. The recipe is from everywhere and nowhere. It is authentic and entirely new. It is from my grandfather; it is from me.

W.T.’s Barbecue Sauce

1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 lemon
1 sliced yellow onion
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)

Mix vinegar, water, sugar, pepper, lemon, onion, and butter in saucepan. Simmer 30 minutes, uncovered. add ketchup and remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. remove from heat, or lower temperature and simmer to desired consistency. Makes about 2 cups of thick sauce.

Anne Zimmerman
San Francisco, CA 


My nonno cooked his squid and peas in the dank cellar where he made wine.

YOU CAN SMELL IT DOWN THE HALL IN MY APARTMENT BUILDING, crawling out into the street. It seeps into the walls and stays there for days. It’s not briny like the froth at the top of the sea, or crisp like oysters. It is murky, like the deep corners of the ocean. The squid stews in its own juices and ink remnants, with garlic, tomato paste, and black pepper, turning brown and thickening.

The smell brings me to my nonno’s house. He cooked his squid and peas in the dank cellar where he made wine. The tough squid simmered and broke down to tender in a giant pot. The smell climbed up the stairs and drove my grandmother crazy. It belonged down in the dark basement, which was always a few degrees cooler, with the pinochle games and the men drunk on wine, leaning against the stone walls.

The smell horrified me as a boy. I was American, and my nonno and nonna were aliens. I wouldn’t eat it. Watching it being eaten was almost as bad: humans slurping tentacles. I started wanting it when I wasn’t a kid anymore.

The recipe was never written down. My mother told me the basics, and I worked out the rest myself, guided by the smell. After my nonno’s funeral last summer, I waited months to make squid and peas again. I was afraid of where the smell would take me.

Squid and Peas

1 pound fresh squid (equal parts bodies and tentacles)
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
4 or 5 large cloves garlic, chopped (more or less, as you like)
1 to 2 cups peas, frozen or fresh (more or less, as you like)
olive oil
black pepper
2 1/2 cups warm water

Clean squid. Separate tentacles from bodies. Cut the bodies into rings; cut the tentacle groups in half if they are large.

Cover the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil, and place over medium heat. Add the squid and stir. Add a small amount of salt and pepper. After a few minutes, after the squid turns whitish, firms up, and gives out some of its liquid, throw in the garlic and mix it around. Be careful not to brown or burn the garlic.

Mix tomato paste into the water until it dissolves. Pour the solution over the squid until they are nearly covered. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Add more salt, and lower the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 60 to 90 minutes with the lid tilted, allowing the sauce to reduce. This dish does well with lots of black pepper, so add whenever you want and as
much as you like. With about 20 minutes to go, add the peas and a little more salt.

It’s done when the sauce is thick, murky, and a dark reddish brown. The squid should be tender and the peas still with a snap. Spoon into a shallow bowl and serve with a hunk of crusty bread for sopping.

Jonah Fontela


MY GRANDFATHER, A CATTLERANCHER, couldn’t make sense of supper if there wasn’t a pile of meat on his plate. When my mother cooked tacos, he spooned every last crumble of ground beef from the serving dish into his taco shells because he couldn’t imagine that two pounds were meant to feed an entire family.

My mother married a city man. An artist. Which also baffled my granddad. Her family introduced him at reunions and holidays: “Get a load,” they’d say, nodding in his direction. “He draws pictures for money, that one.”

Not much money. Not at first. For a long time, my family ate deviled ham, Vienna sausages, Spam. My mother concocted “hobo sandwiches,” and this is the one recipe my sister (herself an artist now) and I most wanted from our mom’s kitchen.

Years later, I’m a near-vegetarian. that fact alone would embarrass my granddad, but to add insult to injury, my sister and I still eat like hobos. When she visits, I skulk down the potted-meat aisle at the grocery and knock a can of Spam in my cart, hoping no one notices.

My sister and I watch the brown sugar bubble on each slice in the oven, anticipating the flavor of that sweet spot between country and city, means and hardship, art and ingenuity.

Hobo Sandwiches

1/4 cup onion, chopped
1 small pat butter
1 can of Van Camp’s pork and beans
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/2 tablespoon mustard
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 can of Spam
Hamburger buns
slices of American cheese

Chop and sauté 1/4 cup of the onion in butter in a skillet. Add the pork and beans. Add the ketchup, mustard, and 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar. Stir and let simmer. Slice Spam thinly. Place slices on foil-lined cookie sheet, sprinkle well with half of the remaining brown sugar, and bake at 350°F for 10 minutes. Flip the slices, sprinkling with brown sugar again, and bake that side for 10 minutes or until both sides are brown and cooked well. Serve spam, fresh from the oven, on hamburger buns, topped with beans and slices of American cheese.

Jill Patterson
Texas Tech University


SUNDAY NIGHT SUPPER WAS THE ONE TIME A WEEK we sat for a meal as a family — five of us around the table. Mostly we laughed. When I think of those nights, I see hysterics all around, forkfuls of lamb stalled on the way to the mouth. Sam giggling over his steak, Will with his arms in the air, Dad (who’s never owned a pair of blue jeans) cracking up despite himself, Mom laughing to the point of silence, tears on her cheeks. I’m there doubled over, trying to catch my breath. We ate, too, but the food played second fiddle to the jokes and misbehavior, rebellion in burp form, the act of wearing a Sox cap to the table, seeing if you could get away with saying “shit” or “ass.” I didn’t think about how the food was made; it appeared on the table. We ate it, and we joked.

My mom’s roast chicken is the meal most strongly associated with those nights. Crisp skin, moist meat, thyme and garlic. Step one in the instructions she wrote: Buy a chicken. She drew a diagram of the bird to show where to slather the mix of butter, garlic, Parmesan, and thyme. “Opposite of liposuction” is a parenthetical note. When I roast chicken now, when I slide my fingers between slick skin and cold flesh, I don’t just think of those boisterous, merry Sunday night suppers. I think of my mom, quiet in the kitchen beforehand, her fingers underneath the chicken skin, fighting against the gloom, four o’clock to seven on Sunday evening. She called them suicide hours.

Mom’s Roast Chicken

Buy a chicken. Combine: 3 tablespoons of soft butter, 3 tablespoons Parmesan, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, some thyme. Slide fingers underneath chicken skin membrane. spread butter mixture over body, under skin (opposite of liposuction). Salt and pepper outside of bird. Wash hands. Roast in a 350°F oven until done (about 90 minutes,
depending on poundage).

Nina Maclaughlin


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eighteen

Gravy Train. Jerky. An etymology of meat words

July 15, 2012

story by Malia Wollan
illustrations by Holly Mulder-Wollan
This article originally appeared
Meatpaper Issue Eighteen. 

GRAVY TRAIN: noun, slang, originated in the United States. Gravy is an example of what linguists call a “ghost word,” or a word that originates in an error. In this case, it seems that sometime in the 14th century, a recipe transcriber mistook the Old French grané, meaning “grain or seed,” and wrote it as gravé. Gravé became gravy. Then in the late 19th or early 20th century, the word underwent a so-called meaning shift, coming to describe not just a meaty sauce but also easy money. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first example of this usage in a July 1910 edition of the Saturday Evening Post. “Stick him for all you can,” the article read. “You’re a hard worker, and you mustn’t let somebody else git the gravy.” In 1927, American Speech, the quarterly academic journal of the American Dialect Society, wrote that gravy train was an American slang term meaning a paying position requiring little or no work. Etymologists are perplexed by the train. In his book Heavens to Betsy! And Other Curious Sayings, author Charles Earle Funk suggests that perhaps the term derived from “railroad lingo, in which a gravy run or a gravy train meant an easy run with good pay for the train crew.” Whatever its origin, the term quickly caught on with newspaper headline writers, politicians, ad men, and even rock stars. In the 1960s, General Foods named a dog food brand Gravy Train. In 1975, the English rock band Pink Floyd used the term in the lyrics to a song, “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy, we call it riding the gravy train.”

JERKY: noun. The term originates in the Spanish word charqui, also spelled charque, which is believed to be derived from the Quechua word ch’arki, meaning dried meat. Quechua is the language of the Incan Indians of modern-day Peru. The Incans built and maintained vast road networks throughout their South American empire, and travelers often relied on dried llama meat while on the road. Think today’s gas station jerky, only made of llama. When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in the Incan empire in the 1530s, he and his men noted with admiration the Incans’ large quantities of dried meat. Though the term charqui became widely used in Spanish, it did not appear in English until 1612, in the writings of English explorer Captain John Smith. Smith, a founder of the Jamestown colony who famously took up with Pocahontas, translated the Spanish word into English as jerkin. In his account, A map of Virginia, with a description of the countrey, Smith describes the culture of Pocahontas’s tribe, the Algonquians. He compares the Algonquian dried meat to the dried meat he’d eaten in the Caribbean. “Their fish and flesh they boyle either very tenderly, or broyle it so long on hurdles over the fire,” he wrote. “Or else, after the Spanish fashion, putting it on a spit, they turne first the one side, then the other, til it be as drie as their jerkin beefe in the west Indies, that they may keepe it a month or more without putrifying.” 

Sources: Spanish Word Historieand Mysteries: English Words That Come FroSpanish; The Oxford English Dictionary; Weeds in the Garden oWords: Further Observationothe Tangled History of the English Language, by Kate Burridge; and Heavento Betsy! And Other CuriouSayings, by Charles Earle Funk. 

MALIA WOLLAN is a Meatpaper editor.

HOLLY MULDER-WOLLAN is an artist and illustrator living in Oakland, California.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eighteen.