Hot Bagels and Polish Jokes

Michael Nagrant / 06.25.06


Historically, the Polish have not fared well at the hand of comedians. We rate somewhere above blondes and just below the Irish as a mocked collective. As a first generation Pole, I regularly suffered jokes and challenges to my intellect. I often responded that Copernicus, Chopin, and Marie Curie were Polish, and that any nation that spawned such cultural icons must have something going for it.

After further review, I now realize three national icons isn’t a great record after thousands of years of history, and playing with lethal radiation isn’t very bright. No matter, I still have irrefutable proof of Polish intellectual and cultural strength.

We invented the bagel, or at least inspired its creation.

A document from Krakow dating from 1610 mentions “beygls” given as a gift to women in childbirth, and common lore has it that in 1683, a Jewish baker created them for King Jan Sobieski III of Poland to commemorate his victory over the Turks.

While I had not kept any Turks at bay, I had just driven over eight hundred miles from Chicago to Montreal. I deserved a bagel for the effort, and so I headed to the Mile End neighborhood, where vintage t-shirted hipsters smoke DuMarier cigarettes at sidewalk cafes while black fedora clad Orthodox Jews amble past mikvahs. The Mile End may be a neighborhood of mixed identity, but one thing is certain: it’s one of the best places to score a bagel in North America.

The best place in the neighborhood is St. Viateur Bagels, which was founded in 1957 by Hyman Selikman and Meyer Lewkowicz. The current owner, Joe Morena, landed at St. Viateur in 1962 as a fourteen year old and worked his way up until he bought the joint in 1994.

Walking into St. Viateur, I’m immediately hit with the toasty tang of yeast and the warm glow from split logs in the brick oven. Fifty pound bags of Robin Hood flour are stacked on palettes near the door, and a baker with Popeye sized forearms twists dough rings near a hopper of fresh radiating bagels. The dough rings are placed into a kettle of simmering honey water which allows the dough to rise and adds a subtle sweetness and shiny glaze to the finished bagel. The bagels are then retrieved from the kettle and placed on long, wooden boards and slid into the oven for about twenty minutes.


It’s labor of finesse and love worth every bite. At St. Viateur you can order from whole-wheat, poppyseed, sesame seed, or tout-garni (everything) – all of the seeds plus garlic. That’s the first one I popped in my mouth, and my favorite. There is no way a Montreal bagel will ever have the familiarity or inspire the nostalgia that an H & H bagel will for a native New Yorker, but I’m from the Midwest. I’ve had both, and, for me, the Montreal version is superior. It’s a matter of personal preference, but the Montreal bagel is lighter and a little chewier. I also love the sweetness. In New York, I can stop at one or two, but in Montreal I couldn’t keep my hand out of the bag. It was like having a personal bakery at my side. I just kept pulling them out and chewing until they were gone.

If you think I’m a heretic, try them yourself. St. Viateur is located at 263 St. Viateur Ouest. Phone is (514)-276-8044.