To much fanfare, American Girl recently introduced its first Jewish doll, Rebecca Rubin, a 1914 New Yorker of Russian ancestry. While the dolls have a reputation for historical accuracy, I couldn't help but be surprised to discover what appears to be a striking anomaly among one of her accessories.
A "school set" (inset) includes a pretend lunch of a bagel, rugelach, and pickles. But, look closely at the bagel, and you will see that it's adorned with two suspect slices of orange cheese that look strangely like American cheese. A Shonda! I mean, really, where's the cream cheese?
What we now know as American cheese wasn't even patented until 1916, much less produced on a large scale until the 1950s. So, this has to be wrong. But, how were bagels eaten back then. Did Jews spread cream cheese on their bagels in the early 1900s, or something else?
I contacted Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, to get a historical perspective on bagel toppings.
She told me via email that not only did the cheese look suspect, so too did the way the bagel was presented:
In 1900, bagels were unlikely to have been sliced. If you look at photographs from the time, bagels have much bigger holes and a lot less dough - they looked more like a pretzel. The dough then was much denser (therefore also difficult to slice) and typically would have been eaten by breaking in half and dipping in something. I've come across accounts of being dipped in tea and eaten with coffee. There is also a Yiddish short story form the beginning of the century where the protagonist has a bagel with butter. I personally haven't seen any accounts (until the 1960s) of bagels with sliced American cheese.
What about cream cheese?
I am not an expert on cream cheese but from what I can see cream cheese in its Philadelphia form dates from the late 19th century. I have some ads from the Jewish Forward where cream cheese is being advertised with bagels from the 1940s. Interestingly, my informants from pre-war Poland told me they ate bagels with goosefat which has a similar consistency to cream cheese - but doubt American girl was into that!!
Another possible topping might have been smoked fish:
What I do know is that Isaac Bashevis Singer talks about eating bagels with herring in Warsaw as a child - (he was born in 1902) - so I assume that the custom of eating them with smoked/preserved fish was imported with East European Jewish immigrants to New York but of course herring being a food for poorer people it would have been replaced as soon as one could afford it, with lox.
So, there you have it from a bagel expert. Here's hoping American Girl corrects the inaccuracy and introduces an assortment of new pretend bagel condiments, from goosefat to herring.