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.