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The History of Bagels

From Einstien Bros. Bagel Shop in New York.

Bagels should be found in the dictionary under fun, but according to Webster (who probably liked his with a shmear) a bagel is "a hard bread roll made of yeast dough twisted into a small doughnutlike shape, cooked in simmering water, then baked." The bagel is the only bread product that is boiled before it is baked. That's what gives the bagel its unique texture and the crust its characteristic shine.

Legend has it that in 1683 in Vienna, Austria, a local Jewish baker wanted to thank the king of Poland for protecting his countrymen from Turkish invaders. He made a special hard roll in the shape of a riding stirrup-Bugel in German - commemorating the king's favorite pastime and giving the bagel its distinct shape.

As bagels gained popularity in Poland, they were officially sanctioned as gifts for women in childbirth and mentioned in community registers. Mothers used them as nutritious teething rings that their infants could easily grasp - a practice still popular today.

Bagels eventually made their way to Russia, where they were called bubliki and were sold on strings. Like other ring-shaped objects, they were said to bring good luck and possess magical powers. It is even said that songs were sung about bagels!

A North American Debut

When the Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in North America at the turn of the century, they brought the bagel with them. Many settled in Canada, giving cities like Toronto and Montreal their reputation for having superb bagels. The American bagel industry established formal roots in New York between 1910 and 1915 with the formation of Bagel Bakers Local #338. This exclusive group of 300 craftsmen with "bagels in their blood" limited its members to sons of its members. At the time, it was probably easier to get into medical school than to get an apprenticeship in one of the 36 union bagel shops in New York City and New Jersey.

Professional bagel baking required know-how and backbreaking labor. Bagel makers' sons apprenticed for months to learn the trade. Men were paid by the piece and usually worked in teams of four. Two made the bagels, one baked, and a "kettleman" was in charge of boiling the bagels. The men earned 19 cents a box, and each box typically contained 64 bagels. It was not unusual for a team to make a hundred boxes a night.

With the rising of the yeast in countless bakeries, the popularity of the bagel rose far beyond the boundaries of ethnic neighborhoods. In the late 1950's and 1960's, bakers from New York and New Jersey began moving to other parts of the country. One such veteran who opened a bagel bakery in a suburb of Washington, D.C., in 1966, remembers his skeptical landlord nervously questioning, "Who's gonna spend seven cents for one of those things?"

Prepackaged bagels first became available in grocery stores in the 1950's. With the introduction of frozen bagels in the 1960's, consumers had access to bagels even if they didn't live near a bagel bakery.

Bagel-making machines, a boon to commercial bakers, were also introduced in the early 1960's. The machines form bagels by extruding the dough through the ring shape. Inventor Dan Thompson says, "I was born to invent a bagel machine. My father was thinking about a bagel-making machine when I was conceived." That may not be far from the truth, because Dan's father had a wholesale bakery in Winnipeg, Canada, and was already working on a bagel-making machine back in 1926. But it was far too complicated, too slow, and too costly to manufacture and wasn't commercially feasible.

There were as many as fifty unsuccessful attempts to produce a bagel-making machine in the early twentieth century. The Thompson Bagel Machine Corporation developed the first viable model, despite "doubting Thompsons" who insisted that no machine would ever replace the human hand in forming bagels. Most of the early machines were leased by bakers who paid by the dozen on the time meter. Now most are purchased. Popular with "Mom and Pop" bagel bakeries is the single-bank Thompson model with a dough divider that forms 175 dozen (2,100) bagels an hour. Large-scale production companies use multiples of the double-bank machine, each of which produces 400 dozen (4,800) bagels hourly.


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Last updated November 29, 2005