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28 February 2024

What is Brick Lane without bagels?

What the fate of a beloved East End bagel shop tells us about our changing cities.

By Anoosh Chakelian

For a decade, I’ve lived in the same patch of east London – one of Sixties tower blocks and maisonettes jigsawed around Victorian terraces that survived the Blitz. Among the scruffy row of shops nearest my estate – home to a tailor-cum-barber, a pizza takeaway and a sushi café manned by an eager Afghan chef – is my favourite off-licence. Unremarkable from the shopfront, it doesn’t even have a name: “News Off Licence”, declares its signage, alongside the Lyca Mobile logo. Inside, once the good newspapers have gone (I’ve never seen the New Statesman – it must fly off the shelves…), there isn’t much of note among the McVitie’s and Polos.

But I soon discovered the treasures behind the counter. One Sunday morning I encountered a neighbour, the longest-serving tenant in our block and queen of local cockney lore, carrying a bag of fresh bagels. For as long as she could remember, that cornershop had sold bagels made and delivered by Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake – an iconic Seventies Jewish bakery now a staple of food tours and breathless TikTok posts.

So began a sacred Sunday ritual: gathering what change I could find and pacing to the cornershop before 8.30am to make sure I came away with a bundle of bagels at 40p each before they ran out. This became a weekly joy – chatting outside with fellow residents-in-the-know as we waited for the shop owners to arrive from their home in Ilford, eyeing the still-warm paper sack of bagels left on trust by the door.

Not only were the bagels cheap and delicious – that tight white twist of dough with a glossy tan that supermarkets cannot replicate – but they were a throwback to the Jewish East End. At its height in the early years of the 20th century, the Jewish population of east London was 125,000, and 60 Jewish master bakers were dotted around the capital – many in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, according to History in the Baking, a book about the area’s only surviving Jewish family-owned bakery, Rinkoffs.

By the late Nineties, there were around 2,000 East End Jews left. Yet three decades later, the bread of their ancestors was still being delivered – to a now chiefly Bangladeshi Muslim area, sold by Indian Hindu shopkeepers, and devoured by gentile locals such as my neighbours and me, an interloper baptised Armenian Orthodox from outer west London.

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Earlier this year, I went to the off-licence with my fistful of loose change to find the bagels no longer on sale. Demand had fallen so much that it wasn’t worth stocking them any more. It was a quiet moment of hyper-local heartbreak that mirrors the wider decline of East End Jewish bakeries, and along with them the classic bagel (which original Eastenders pronounce with the “i” in “beigel”). In February, Beigel Shop, the bakery a few doors down from Beigel Bake, suddenly closed. Mustard fronted with ketchup-red lettering, it is the less hyped of the two neighbouring delis, known as “the white one” and “the yellow one” among customers who debate their merits. Established in 1855, it proclaims itself “Britain’s first and best”.

Plagued by the deaths of my local bagel sources, I went to Brick Lane to investigate. A modest laminated sign suggested Beigel Shop was closed for maintenance – but the Evening Standard’s courts correspondent reports that the building has been repossessed under a High Court notice. Have 169 years of hand-twisted history come to an end?

As people move, local delicacies slip away and culinary trends shift. Between the wars, Jewish cockneys headed to the suburbs – returning to the city, as a few still do, to pick up heimischkeit (home-style produce). By the late Fifties, Bangladeshis began arriving to work as tailors – as Jews had done before them – then started setting up their own catering businesses.

Now the ever-gentrifying Brick Lane – where Beigel Shop sits empty – is also the scene of the decline of the curry house. From its mid-Noughties peak, the number of South Asian restaurants and cafés on the street dropped 62 per cent in just 15 years. An artisanal chocolatier emits its bitter fumes where the street’s first “Indian”, the Clifton, was established in 1974. The owners find their descendants no longer want to graft in the steamy kitchens that earned their family’s keep. “Our new generation are not interested in the curry industry,” Shams Uddin, Brick Lane’s longest-serving restaurateur, told me. “They have choice, they are studying. They want a 38-hour-a-week job, thank you very much.”

These may be natural shifts, but homogenised high streets are often the result. On 21 February, Historic England announced £875,000 of funding for “Everyday Heritage” grants to rescue such remnants of England’s working-class past – including recording oral histories of workers in London’s Chinatown, and re-establishing rhubarb forcing at a farm in Leeds’s “rhubarb triangle”.

Bagels were never my family tradition. But buying a handful each week to cram with my favourite fillings (smoked salmon, cream cheese, the all-important gherkin) reminded me of my own childhood customs. In my home suburb of Acton, we would go every weekend to the nearby “Lebanese shop” (again, it didn’t seem to have a name) to pick up a stack of freshly baked lahmajun – crispy Arabic flatbreads topped with herby spiced mincemeat – which would serve as lunch with a squeeze of lemon and slices of tomato. I hope the “Little Beirut” of kebab joints and baklava wholesalers that bustles around Acton’s industrial outskirts will survive the decades ahead, even if the clientele has changed.

[See also: It’s the housing market, stupid]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything