You're in fourth grade, you just got home from school, and you're popping half a dozen Bagel Bites into the toaster oven. Extra-industrious child? Then maybe your pizza bagel of choice is made with a supermarket bagel, jarred marinara, and some shredded Italian-style cheese from a bag. Easy enough for a kid to make and delicious enough for her parents to eat too, the pizza bagel is a snack that conjures the bliss of a brief afternoon spent on the couch on a day without homework. Pizza bagels are the ultimate in cheap eats; a hybrid snack that came along far before the Cronut or even the Doritos Locos Taco. They're good, old-fashioned fun for the whole family.
It's crazy, then, that the origin story of the pizza bagel is pretty gangster.
In one of those classic, embittered East Coast/West Coast feuds, two men on opposite sides of the country take credit for the invention of the pizza bagel. Richard Katz of Katz Bagel Bakery in Chelsea, MA, a third-generation bagel baker, claims his father Harry invented the pizza bagel in the early 1970s. Bruce Treitman, currently a financial advisor at Deutsche Bank in Los Angeles, counters that he invented the pizza bagel as a high schooler goofing around with recipes in the back of a Western Bagel in Woodland Hills, CA. Katz has pictures of the pizza bagel process on the wall of his family's 70-year-old bakery dating back to either 1973 or 1974; Treitman has evidence that the latter year was when multiple Western Bagel locations around California adopted his back-room invention. Each man, one a baker and one a businessman, is adamant about his credibility. When Eater asked Katz, the elder inventor, about Treitman's claims, he responded firmly. "That's a lot of shit."
But first, some history...
That the pizza bagel makes adult men grow indignant over a snack food appealing primarily to children (and those with the palates of children) speaks to the visibility that bagels, a one-time "ethnic" food, have in mass American culture. Either a relative of the German pretzel or the Polish obwarzanek, the bagel has come a long way, leaping across an ocean. "The bagels we eat definitely came out of the movement of East European Jews to the East Coast of the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s," says Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread. "There are lots of accounts of bagel-eating in those early times, but it was a [Jewish] community food, associated with holidays and in particular children."
Pizza bagels are a snackwave signifier. It might even be a normcore food.
It's true that long before pizza bagels sated American children, bagels and children were linked. Yiddish folk tales and nursery rhymes depict children playing with bagels. Early bagels were dense and plaited, almost resembling a frisbee. Balinska believes the ring shape of the bagel, how they have no end and no beginning, and how they roll, are funny and appealing to children. In fact, Lender's Bagels, the company that Balinska credits with popularizing the bagel with its savvy with modern machinery, freezing, and preservatives, used humor to great effect in their advertising and on television. Murray Lender, one of the company's founders, even went on The Tonight Show to present Johnny Carson with one of his newfangled bagels.
Most millennials are likely familiar with pizza bagels in the form of Bagel Bites: The frozen food, invented by Stanley Garczynski and Bob Mosher and currently owned by Ore-Ida, used wacky commercials and its legendary "Pizza in the morning, pizza in the evening, pizza at suppertime..." jingle to worm its way into the American consciousness. (Ore-Ida representatives did not respond to interview requests about the inspiration behind the miniature pizza bagels.) Pizza bagels have even gotten a fancy upgrade: Black Seed Bagels, a buzzy Montreal-style bakery in New York City, put late-night pizza bagels on its menu to much fanfare last year. Pizza bagels are a snackwave signifier, a pizza- and other-convenience-food-heavy meme identified by Hazel Cills and Gabrielle Noone on the Hairpin in 2015. It might even be a normcore food. Pizza bagels are ubiquitous, and have been for some time, and yet pizza bagel enthusiasts are still unable to figure out who's responsible for them.
Enter pizza bagel warriors Treitman and Katz.
Treitman v. Katz
Who to believe might depend on your platonic ideal of a pizza bagel. Marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese are fixtures on both, but the pizza bagel's doughy base varies between the two men. The Treitman-invented bagel is in "Bagel Bites"-style: a sliced plain bagel topped with fixings. "I'd take a halved bagel, I'd put cheese on it, I'd put it in the oven for a very short period of time, and eat it," Treitman says of its origin. "Everyone in the back liked it so we started selling them." Originally, pizza bagels were sold at Western bagel for 55 cents. Now, at most Western Bagel locations, you can buy one for $1.75. Treitman doesn't receive any royalties, but Western Bagel does credit him for the creation. Accordingly, the "elderly Jewish clients of the San Fernando Valley" still know him as the "pizza kid."
And up until recently, most people outside of Boston felt the same way. "Apparently this guy Katz thinks his English muffin regular pizza is a pizza bagel," Treitman says. "I never heard that before that article," referring to a 2014 Boston Magazine article that deems Katz's pizza bagel to be the OG. (The article's summary promises that "the rightful inventor of the pizza bagel is on the verge of a big comeback.")
"Apparently this guy Katz thinks his English muffin pizza is a pizza bagel." — Treitman
Presumably, Treitman's dismissive "English muffin regular pizza" comments are directed at Katz's pizza bagel base, which doesn't look much like a traditional bagel. For his creation, Katz uses disc-shaped bagel dough so that the pizza bagel has the same density and moisture as a regular Katz bagel, instead of a drier half-bagel. That way, according to Katz, who runs his bakery "chew and screw style" — "pardon but you don't sit down here and munch on a bagel and play with your iPad. You get your bagels and screw," he says — customers get a whole, albeit hole-less, bagel instead of a half bagel. Katz, who had his bagels in 165 supermarkets in the 1990s and lost his shelf space due to a shadowy, financially devastating "corporate decision," is reentering the public pizza bagel sphere once again. He's recently seen a patent lawyer. He's also a bagel-dog connoisseur, reportedly selling 28,000 Vienna-stuffed bagels a year.
He's had customers who tell him, "I've had pizza bagels somewhere else." But Katz stands by his opinion that many imitators pale in comparison. "My pizza bagels are crunchy like a bagel, and then you've got sauce and cheese on top, all natural and with no preservatives," he says. Katz, who already sold 10 dozen the morning Eater called at 9 a.m., thinks Treitman's strikes against his father's pizza bagel origin story are "a lot of shit."
"You don't sit down here and munch on a bagel and play with your iPad. You get your bagels and screw." — Katz
Balinska is willing to believe two men on different coasts could have unknowingly created the product simultaneously. Apparently, the history of the bagel itself as we know it today is rife with cultural overlap. "One thing I found while doing this bagel research is that people come up with similar ideas at the same time," Balinska says. "Yes, there was a bread like a bagel in Southern China. And yes, there was a bread like a bagel in Southern Italy. Some of us share a fascination with ring shapes, and experimenting with wheat and flour, and I think it's really cool." There's no reason why that concurrent bagel experimentation couldn't have happened in the 1970s, topped off with a little mozzarella.
It's unlikely either man will ever concede to such an idea, however. "I don't have any regrets that I don't get royalties from Western Bagel because I've had some other luck," Treitman says. "I'm just glad that people all over the world, including Katz's Bakery, can enjoy pizza bagels now."