Bagels, a legacy of love

November 18, 1997

November 19, 1997

Bagels, a legacy of love


Staff Writer

Bagels, the doughy delicacies that make the mouth water, feed more than the body.

They also nourish the soul, says Dr. M. Douglas Becker, a Hagerstown pediatrician who learned to make bagels when he was a child.

Like a wedding ring symbolizes faithfulness, a bagel's shape represents the bond between the Jewish people and God, he says.

For Becker, bagels also bring back memories of watching his late grandmother, Jettie Cohen, as she worked in the kitchen.

Becker grew up in Kentucky, and his grandparents lived with his family. Grandma Jettie was from Latvia, and bagels were her specialty, he says.


Becker, the oldest of four children, would perch on a stool and watch her make them. She'd mix the dough Saturday night, then bake bagels Sunday morning.

"The preparation is a labor of love," Becker says.

Becker, who Grandma Jettie called Dougie and his friends call Doug, says she used a lot of interesting terms to describe the process.

She'd roll a rope of dough and call it a snake, and she'd pile flour in a bowl and use her hand to make a depression, saying it was a volcano.

Grandma Jettie offered love beyond measure, and she never used a kitchen timer or measured ingredients. Becker watched her carefully, and he used his recollections to write down her recipe for B'Nai Abraham Sisterhood's cookbook, "The Best Gets Better." He hadn't shared the recipe until then, and he realized it was too good to keep secret.

Becker, 54, started making bagels on his own after he finished medical school.

"I'm a person who doesn't sleep well, and I consider it therapy. I really enjoy working with the dough," he says.

In the kitchen of his Hagerstown home, Becker weaves a story of personal experience, history and spirituality as his patient hands shape the mixture.

Yeast bread is as old as civilization, and breads that have been boiled then baked were documented in Roman times, Becker says.

He says bagels are a cross-pollination between the pretzels made in Eastern Europe that were boiled then baked and biscochos, or Spanish biscuits made of yeast dough that were baked without boiling. Jewish settlers brought biscochos to Poland in the 1300s.

Bagel is a Yiddish word extracted from "baugel," a Germanic word meaning ring, derived from "beigen," which can be translated as "to bend," according to Becker.

A Family Circle magazine article, using the spelling "bageles," introduced bagels to the general population in 1951, Becker says.

Today bagels are so commonly available from bakeries and supermarkets that only purists still make their own, he says.

Becker's family has benefited from his bagel-making hobby, and his efforts have been enjoyed many mornings at the breakfast table. He and his wife, Joan, have been married for 34 years, and they have two grown children.

Becker prefers to eat bagels with margarine, while his wife likes to use a lox cream cheese spread.

He has made bagels for the Jewish Food Festival in past years. His busy schedule doesn't permit him to make them this year, but he will be a greeter at the event Sunday, Nov. 23.

Handmade bagels, besides being delicious, also have a spiritual quality, Becker says.

He says he feels a sense of history when his fingers knead the dough.

"I can get in touch with my ancestors, and it helps me remember my grandmother, whom I loved very much," he says.

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