On September 12, 1683, after two long months of siege by the Ottoman Empire, the city of Vienna, Austria was rescued by the largest cavalry charge in history. Led by King Jan Sobieski III of Poland, the large combined force freed the city, a victory that became a turning point in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars, a conflict already spanning nearly 300 years.
To say the people of Vienna were grateful would perhaps be an understatement. And legend has it that at least one Viennese baker took it upon himself to thank the king with a unique gift. The baker rolled a special bread into the shape of a horseshoe, boiled it, then baked it, so it would form a nice crust, and offered it King Jan, calling it a beugel, the German word for stirrup. King Jan took the gift, smeared it with cream cheese and lox and declared it gishmak.
Well, that’s the persistent legend anyway. Actually the bagel, which does seem to have come from that general region of the world, predates the Battle of Vienna. Bagels are first mentioned in a list of “Community Regulations” in Krakow, Poland, dated 1610, where they are a suggested gift for mothers in childbirth, which, as far as I’m concerned, would have been way better than ice chips.
Some bagel historians (a highly competitive field, obviously) suggest the bagel may be a direct descendent of the soft, doughy pretzel produced in German monasteries from the twelfth century or so.
But however the wonderful chewy, crusty, traditionally Jewish, round bread came to be, it became a staple of the Polish diet and eventually found its way into New York (where they take their bagels very seriously), Chicago, and in 1983 to Carbondale, Illinois.
It’s true that Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, probably had bagels before 1983, but that was the year the Winston Bagel cart opened for business and introduced the world, one college student at a time, to the ultimate grilled bagel sandwich.
As an alumna of this esteemed institute of higher learning and a former frequenter of Winston Mezo’s weekend bagel stand, I was a little saddened to hear of Winston’s retirement this past weekend. It’s the end of an era at the old alma mater.
After a stint in the military, Winston arrived in Carbondale, in his words, “to sober up.” A recovering alcoholic, sober for 35 years, Winston served bagels, wisdom, and really bad jokes to the student population throughout all of that time.
His bagels became legend in the little college town and far beyond as students he encountered spread across the world. Before I left for school as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old, I was given this sage advice by another student: “Order a Winston bagel with everything, except the ingredients you absolutely cannot tolerate. Trust me.”
And it does take some trust, because fully loaded, Winston’s bagels (grilled over charcoal while you listen to some bad jokes), include: butter, cream cheese, cucumber, apple slices, garlic powder, cinnamon, raisins, chopped onions, sunflower seeds, and bacon bits. I always ordered mine without onions and raisins. And it’s one of the most delicious combinations on the planet. Trust me.
I had a full schedule this past weekend or I might have made the trip to Carbondale to have one last bagel grilled by the man himself. Instead, I joined SIU alumni around the world and fired up the grill to make my own.
Though it lacked the charm of the bad jokes, the bagel was every bit as delicious as I remember. It tasted like college and memories. And it tasted like the kind of food you might make for a king who just delivered your city from a long siege, and for whom you are especially grateful.
There’s a nice article about Winston and his bagels in a recent edition of the university paper, the Daily Egyptian. I wish the bagel man well in his retirement. SIU will miss him.