March 23, 2012

We can’t know who baked the first bagel. The path from when the first circle of malty dough was moved from a vat of boiling water into an oven to now, to you with your lox spread and Sunday paper, is murky.

But we can be sure that Murray Lender, who died Wednesday at 81, was the most important man in the modern history of bagels. Lender’s bagels may taste like white bread with a hole, but what they lack in authenticity they make up for in meaning.

When Murray Lender’s father opened a bakery in New Haven, Conn., in 1927, he was one of many bakers who brought the staple from Eastern Europe to Jewish neighborhoods in the United States. Bagels were a niche food, but their production was sophisticated. The International Bagel Bakers Unionformed in 1907, and New York City’s Local 338 had a lock on the breakfast bread; at its height, the union comprised about 300 workers, each of whom was an original member or the son of a member. The bakers — benchmen who rolled dough, kettlers who boiled and ovenmen who executed the final step — protected the secrets of their craft. It took years to develop a proper bagel muscle on the outside of the elbow.

The union was powerful and effective. The Jewish Bakers’ Voice, their newspaper, noted after a strike in 1953 that bagels had “become domesticated in America and [are] today a 100 per cent American product like spaghetti and chow mein. . . . In consequence, the bagel strike was a national event, which hit the front pages of the newspapers.” But in those newspaper articles, the writers took care to explain what exactly the workers were fighting over. After all, most readers outside New York had never seen a bagel, much less tasted one.

One of the union’s staunchest beliefs was that a machine could never make a bagel. In 1963, Daniel Thompson, a World War II vet and the son of a bagel man, proved them wrong. His machine could produce about 2,500 bagels in an hour. He contacted the nation’s largest bagel bakeries about leasing prototypes. All three — Lender’s, Abel’s Bagels of Buffalo and Bagel Kings of Hialeah near Miami — were experimenting with freezing, which would allow surplus production and long-distance shipping. But all three were having trouble baking enough bagels to expand their reach.


Murray Lender kisses the world's largest bagel while baker Larry Wilkerson, left, and Lender's Bagel Bakery manager Jim Cudahy watch after the weight of the bagel was revealed during Bagelfest in Mattoon, Ill. (DOUG LAWHEAD/AP)

Only Lender’s, with Murray Lender as chief executive, saw the future.

Lender’s became the first bakery to mass-produce and freeze bagels. By the late 1960s, the company produced thousands a day to be sold across the nation. Bagels became a reality in corners of the country where they had previously been a rumor, a whisper in the wind off New York Harbor. The union tried to fight back, but it was too late. It shriveled and Lender’s kept growing, shaping the bagel literally and metaphorically. By the end of the 1970s, more than 80 percent of the million bagels made each day by Lender’s were sold to non-Jewish households. Americans of all stripes knew and loved bagels.

But what about the taste? At first the bagel machine had an unintended consequence: The dough gummed up the works, so it was changed to be less sticky. Then it turned out that, to sell bagels to people around the country, it helped to make them taste like white bread. Then people wanted “flavors.” Murray Lender’s bagel was very different from what his father would have made in the old country. In 1997, Eric Asimov described in the New York Times the Lender’s Line, an “informal border” between those who eat supermarket bagels and those who know better. And just this month, when Consumer Reports announced that Lender’s Original was one of the best bagels available, the New York Post lashed out at the foolishness of such an idea.

But Murray Lender is not a villain. His frozen toroids opened the door for the proliferation of bagel shops. Consumers across the world met the bagel through Lender’s and later demanded hot, fresh, New York-style bagels. And in the towns where those shops are yet to open, they still have Lender’s. New Yorkers can be proud of their bagel heritage and still recognize that Lender was a bagel big shot.

Barry Ansel, a close friend of the Lender family and vice president of sales at Lender’s from 1976 to 1994, told me years ago, when I started researching the history of the bagel, that Murray Lender’s genius was to convince the world that bagels were a good alternative to toast or English muffins. It was a simple idea but was also full of chutzpah, an innovation that would forever change the history of noshing.

“He saw that it didn’t matter if you were Irish or English or whatever,” Ansel said. “Everybody could enjoy a bagel.”

outlook@washpost.com

Lily Rothman is a freelance writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @lilyrothman.

Read more from Outlook, friend us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter.