Eli Whitney was a revolutionary patriot in the best sense. He was modest in the extreme, and unostentatious almost to a fault; but through these distinguishing virtues there shone a public spirit and a genius which entitle him to a high rank among the benefactors of man.
—“King Cotton and his Gin,” The Atlantic (1888)
Sixty years from now, when a future Atlantic writer decides to write (or mind-beam) a story about the life of Daniel Thompson, the odds seem low that the man who made the mass-production of bagels possible will find the hyperbolic esteem that Eli Whitney did more than six decades after his death in 1825.
Sure, the bagel didn’t transform the American economy the way that the cotton gin did, but it’s impossible to deny its inimitable prominence in the cultural and culinary terrain. For proof, here’s a sampling of this magazine’s fascination with the ring-shaped roll as an American emblem, diviner of complex matters, cultural signifier, and divisive, edible bugaboo:
Back in 1997, Toby Lester scored the musical notes involved in defrosting a bagel to explain the modern symphony of secondhand music. John Updike summons the bagel bins of a Brooklyn supermarket in “Varieties of Religious Experience,” his 2002 short story about a faithless man in the aftermath of September 11th. In 2009, Ari Zeinzweig dutifully chronicled the 400-year history of the bagel including its crucial service to19th-century Polish radicals and the American labor movement.
Also in 2009, Corby Kummer marveled at the reach of the bagel after seeing it hawked as exotic fare in a Roman airport. Derek Thompson imagined the plight of a bagel shop to explain post-recession recovery efforts in 2010. Jeffrey Goldberg, unsurprisingly, once harangued an unsuspecting Atlantic intern upon encountering the fellow harmlessly spreading hummus on a “Christmas Raisin Ring”—the Goldbergian term for a cinnamon raisin bagel, which is maligned by purists.
That the bagel muscled out the doughnut, its sugary nemesis, in the 1990s to cement top billing on the American breakfast platter is because of Daniel Thompson, who died earlier this month at 94. The son of a Jewish baker, Thompson invented a machine that turned the task of making bagels from arduous to practically automatic. (He also patented the foldable, rolling ping-pong table.)
“You used to have two guys hand-shaping and boiling, and baking who could turn out maybe 120 bagels an hour,” Thompson told an interviewer in 1993. He boasted that his machine “rolls 200 to 400 dozen bagels an hour.”
As the legend goes, Murray Lender of Lender’s Bagels bought the machine in the early 1960s and helped to turn a chewy, artisan-made, ready-to-eat delicacy into a freezable comestible that required toasting to be edible and could also cut diamonds. Bagels from Thompson’s machine went mainstream and became a stable everywhere from Sandwich, Massachusetts, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“It meant that any Joe off the street could make a bagel,” one bagel expert told Margalit Fox of The New York Times. “And that was one of a confluence of factors that in less than a generation turned the bagel, which had once been smaller and crusty and flavorful, into something that is large and pillowy and flavorless — it had turned into the kind of baked good that Americans like, à la Wonder Bread.”
Bagel snobs and pedants, assuming they’re not mutually exclusive constituencies, have long decried the industrialized bagel for its bland uniformity and for the Mastiff-level mandible power required to ingest one. But without Thompson’s machine, the bagel might have been doomed to semi-obscurity—a regional or ethnic curiosity like the cruller or the kolache. In other words, without Thompson, the mighty bagel as we know it may have remained closed-faced under lox and key.
Some may have preferred it that way. It remains a popular theory that the fruit of Eli Whitney’s genius hastened the outbreak of the Civil War. While Thompson’s machine has not produced anything resembling the Battle of Five Forks, the Lender’s generation seems to be winning the war over the soul of the bagel. Some of the many who came of age in the era of the industrialized bagel (and still eat gluten) seem to seek joy in a toasted bagel’s crunch rather than its uncorrupted chew.
Conceding to this demographic, Murray’s, the venerated New York City institution, became the latest bagel shop to reverse its ban on toasters earlier this month. While traditionalists hold firm, the conventional standard for a bagel may be toast.