Or none of the above.
Compared with most breads, little water is used in the dough's formation. So the density of the interior is a crucial trait. As Maria Balinska wrote in her authoritative "The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread," a traditionally made bagel is "past its prime after a mere five hours."
Many cultures can claim a ring-shaped bread in its culinary history. Puglians, from the Italian "heel" on the Adriatic Sea, have the tarallo to claim as a bagel progenitor. A closer bridge to the modern bagel is the Polish obwarzanek — more ring-shaped than bread-with-hole, larger than our bagels, and woven from two strands of dough.
What's clear is that bagels were peddled predominantly by Eastern European Jews, who first brought their baking talents to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. By the late 1930s, bagels had become so ingrained in New York City life that Jewish bakers formed unions. It remained, however, a food confined within ethnic circles for the next few decades, a curio to Middle America. By the time the 1960s arrived, the bagel was on the precipice of entering the popular vernacular.
Something resonated with Zedek as he walked into Kaufman's Delicatessen and Bakery in Skokie. He surveyed the room.
"I see a lot of food here that we used to eat all the time."
The fish case at Kaufman's was particularly magnificent. Gleaming fillets of salmon, whole herrings, primeval slabs of sable, smoked, cured and peppered every which way. The adjoining bakery smelled as bakeries do, redolent of early mornings.
We heard music not associated with Jewish delis: upbeat Afro-Cuban music. Progress also reared its head in the form of cinnamon-raisin bagels. Most telling was the woman at the cash register — she wore a cross medallion.
"If I had to write a sermon about this experience," Zedek said, "I would talk about the diversity. Talk about the amazing melting pot of America. How one Jewish community's food contribution to the American story was enlarged by the American experience."
One man responsible for integrating bagels into the narrative was a Polish baker named Harry Lender, who arrived in New Haven, Conn., around 1927. Lender's innovation was in purchasing a freezer; his bakery was able to make and freeze enough bagels ahead of time, then defrost them the night before they were delivered to stores. Few businesses could tell the difference between freshly made and previously frozen.
In the 1960s, Lender found a California inventor, himself the son of a bagel baker, who came up with a machine that shaped dough into rings. By now, much of the Lender business was in supermarkets, where customers found the freezer-to-toaster model convenient. The Lender's Bagels brand became as familiar to consumers as Sara Lee. A once-ethnic food had become American.
Back at Kaufman's, 56 years strong, the bagels before us were likely two hours removed from the oven. Zedek sliced a poppy seed bagel, draped a piece of lox over one half and topped that with a healthy chunk of alder wood-smoked sable. He appeared very content.
The sable was buttery, luscious, smooth on the intake.
"Maybe my imagination is playing tricks on me," he said, "but this sable tastes awfully, awfully, awfully good."
Now, those Gentile Motown singers The Supremes came on the speakers with "You Keep Me Hanging On."
"I'm going to bet that if you ask people for their bagel preference, they'd probably say the previous place. Because this actually takes some work. A good bagel the next day should break your teeth," Zedek said. "But this is much more of the bagel I remembered growing up with. It's got some intensity. I still have some flavor in my mouth at this point as we're talking."
At our last stop, New York Bagel & Bialy in Lincolnwood, we noticed a tall stack of crunchy bagel chips in the corner.
"Recycling," Zedek said. "All those bagel chips are bagels that didn't sell. And they get another life."