SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Bagels and lox, they go with weekends for many; a crackling bagel crust, chewy center, silky cream cheese, sharp smoke salmon - that's the lox - maybe capers and onions, too. Who invented what's become a staple that's just about as American as pizza, chow mein and apple pie? Heather Smith was editor of the recently defunct magazine, Meatpaper. She's written about the history of the bagel and lox. And Heather, by the way, happens to be a former WEEKEND EDITION intern. She joins us from New York. Heather, I'm so glad you find wholesome work. Thanks very much for being back with us.
HEATHER SMITH: Thanks so much, it's great to be back.
SIMON: So is a bagel just a bialy with a hole in the middle?
SMITH: It's very different, and the origins of the bagel are somewhat mysterious. There's a lot of folklore around it and variable legends about how the bagel came to exist. But I have decided that we will never know.
SIMON: Well, it's one of the great mysteries of life, think of it that way. What made the bagel leap from being just kind of New York street food, you know, or maybe Sunday brunch food, across the country?
SMITH: So it was really, I think, the Lenders brothers, and Lender's bagels are what I grew up in. I grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan, and I thought they were the greatest thing ever. Like you would get six of them in a little plastic tube. And now, like when I think, the taste was awful, but they were early adopters of refrigeration technology.
SIMON: Can you sing the theme song?
SMITH: There's a theme song?
SIMON: There was. I'm sure they haven't tried it for years. I believe the chorus is (singing) you've got to - let's see - buy, steal or finagle a Lender's bagel.
SMITH: As a small child I would have done that.
SMITH: To me bagels were just magical, even if they were frozen.
SIMON: So cream cheese is kind of British in origin. Smoked salmon could be Scandinavian or Scottish. Capers are Italian. So any idea how it all came together in this American food?
SMITH: These food mash-ups are kind of what America does best, and the cronut and the ramen burger, like those were also invented in New York. But in this case it seems to have just sprung like, you know, Venus from the clam shell.
SMITH: The bagel might be our greatest triumph, that or the burger.
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SIMON: Heather Smith, one of the editors of Meatpaper magazine. Its last issue is available now. She joined us from New York, one of our former interns. Heather, thanks so much for being with us.
SMITH: Thank you.
SIMON: Much naches to you.
SMITH: I love Yiddish.
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SIMON: This is NPR News.
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