Bagels and doughnuts are approximately the same shape.

So the other day I was at home making myself some bagels. What I mean of course is that I was toasting the bagels and applying a variety of appropriate jams, jellies, butters (including peanut) and so on rather than I was actually making the bagels from scratch. While I was in the process of this I was asked by an inquisitive minded soul why it is that bagels have holes in them. At the time I made light of it saying, “well you may as well ask why do doughnuts have holes in them”. But unfortunately they replied asking me why doughnuts have holes “for that matter”.

At the time, in the back of my mind, I knew there was an answer lurking. I knew that somewhere in my mind was the answer. But I couldn’t remember it. So instead I talked about how you lay out the dough in a loop and that’s what makes the hole. But they saw through my plan. And so now, for them, and for everyone else. Here is the answer to the question. Remember, if you want the answer to a question then you can always ask me, there is a handy link on the left there.

Well first I’m going to talk about doughnuts. Mainly because they are older. In fact scientist have even found prehistoric doughnuts. And that despite knowing that it was almost certainly the Dutch who brought them to America, and that at that time there were no holes. There is no firm fix on an answer as to who actually invented the hole. But there is one prevailing story, and it’s the story of Hanson Gregory. Captain Gregory was partial to doughnuts and he liked to nibble on them while at the helm of his ship. And apparently, so the legend goes, on a dark and stormy night the waves became very fierce and so the Captain had to grab the helm with both hands. Having nowhere to hold his doughnut he places it on one of the handles of the wheel. After the storm had calmed Captain Gregory was so impressed with his invention that he ordered the ships cook to prepare them that way always. And so the doughnut with a hole was invented.

It’s complete rubbish obviously, but it is – sadly – the best story we’ve got. Now a theory that I’ve never seen written down anywhere but seems much more plausible is that the doughnut shape is based on the bagel shape. While doughnuts had been made for many more years than bagels the holes in doughnuts actually seem to appear after bagels have been invented. Bagels and doughnuts are approximately the same shape. They are both made by the same people (bakers – or at least they used to be). It seems much more plausible that somebody made a bagel shaped doughnut and the idea caught on.

So where does the bagel come from then? Well I’m glad you asked, because for this we have proof. In 1683 Jan Sobieski, the King of Poland, liberated Vienna from invading Turks. Afterwards he decided, quite rightly I suppose, to have a victory parade through the streets of the city. He was so popular that people swarmed up to his horse and tried to touch his stirrups. In fact so many people touched his stirrups that it became a culturally iconic thing. People would talk about if they managed to touch his stirrups that day. A local baker, not wanting to miss out on a trick, designed a new bun in the shape of the King’s stirrups. And that bun, distorted in shape over time, is what we now know as the bagel.

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