New York Bagel or Chelsea Bun?


Chelsea buns.
Chelsea buns. Photo: Courtesy of: @anniemhendry

“All sorrows are less with bread,” claimed Cervantes in the 1500s. Our obsession with the Chelsea (area in southwest London) bun and New York bagel prove that more than five hundred years later, Cervantes is still right… but which snack is a bite above the rest? Let’s take a deeper look.

Chelsea buns can be traced back to the 1700s, to the Old Chelsea Bun House bakery where 50,000 people, Hanoverian royalty among them, turned up to queue for the first baker’s dozen. The buns, often paired with hot cross buns to celebrate Easter, quickly achieved cult status with a following to match. A strong police force was required to keep the Good Friday queues calm; the buns themselves were sold out of shutters in the side of the bakery lest riots ensued.

While Chelsea buns have been whipping crowds into a frenzy since their inception, bagels have also charmed the masses for decades. Bagels made such an impression that in the early 1900s, a select group of people decided that they liked them so much that they would, effectively, put a ring on it.


Fruity Pebbles bagel with homemade birthday cake cream cheese. Photo: Courtesy of @the_bagel_nook

Cue the International Beigel [sic] Bakers’ Union. For years, bagel production in New York was tightly controlled by this bagel monopoly. An exclusive society, only sons of the original members were allowed to join the fold; wannabe bagel-bakers were threatened with broken legs if it appeared they were going to be baking their own bagels on the sly.

What about the bun and bagel of today? Both, in fact, are bastardized versions of their ancestors; the two have been super-sized and reinvented in crazy flavors at the behest of hangry Instagrammers, outraging bagel and bun purists alike. A blogger even called for government action, proclaiming, “This kind of perversity should be prohibited by law.”

One of the most controversial elements in this bread-ataclysm came out of Lender’s Bagel Factory. They opted to steam rather than hand-roll and boil the dough, managing to double if not triple the output of their traditionalist neighbors. The resulting “roll with a hole,” however, lacks the iconic chewiness of its predecessor, a loss that Mimi Sheraton, former New York Times’ restaurant critic, finds to be “completely deplorable.” We wonder what Sheraton would have to say about the rainbow bagel deviants that ‘broke’ Instagram this past year.

Scot Rossillo's Original Rainbow Bagel. Photo: Courtesy of @thebagelstore
Scot Rossillo’s Original Rainbow Bagel. Photo: Courtesy of @thebagelstore

Bagels may prove more popular online but the Chelsea bun is no less revered. Since its inception, it quickly became a literary muse, popping up in the works of Charles Dickens, Anne Manning and Lewis Carroll. In the 1700s, a local poet even wrote an ode to the humble Chelsea:

Fragrant as honey and sweeter in taste!

As flaky and white as if baked by the light,

As the flesh of an infant soft, doughy and slight.

            – Anon.

Candid, artistic and not just a little disturbing (“flesh of an infant”?!) this poem is the icing on the proverbial Chelsea bun.

So, let’s review. The Chelsea bun wins the tale of the origins because the fact that Chelsea buns caused actual bun fights is too good to go unrewarded. The bagel also gets a point, however, for having a history that enabled a Beyoncé reference. And so we arrive at a tie but there can be only one winner and when it comes down to the wire, nothing beats a bagel in our books, not even the poetic creations of sheer bun-induced madness. Roll on bagels! We salute you.

Edited by Ivy Joseph & Demi Vitkute

Alice Rich


New Zealand-born Alice Rich is a newly-minted digital nomad. She loves getting involved in community projects and was a co-founder of CreativeMornings/Kuala Lumpur, a creative lecture series. A registered Personal Trainer, Alice loves anything active, particularly when there is mud involved. "My favourite aspect about London is Big Ben."

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