The bagel is a lonely roll to eat all by yourself. In order for the true taste to come out you need your family. One to cut the bagels, one to toast them, one to put on the cream cheese and lox, one to put them on the table and one to supervise. -- from "The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook"
ONCE UPON a time, only 317 years after the word bagel first appeared in literature, the man who was to make the "cement donut" a household word baked his first bagel in New Haven, Conn. Today you can buy the frozen version of his product in grocery stores all across the United States.
What's so noteworthy is not just that the 100 million bagels produced by the company each day are bought mostly by non-Jews, but that the company named Lender's Bakery is not owned by ITT or Pillsbury or General Foods. It's owned by people named Lender.
The Lenders are not big time by ITT standards, but they did more than $20 million worth of bagel business last year. The company, according to its vice president, Marvin Lender, is "more sophisticated than it was," but it's still run by Murray and Marvin.
Murray and Marvin are two of Harry Lender's five children. Their company, the world's largest bagel bakers has over 350 employes scattered through four plants which do everything automatically, including punch the famous holes. For Murry and Marvin and their now-retired brother Sam it's been a life-long activity.
As children, "go out in the back yard and play" in the Lender family meant go to the garage and start shaping bagels. Marvin's idea of a vacation was to spend a weekend with his brother in the army at Camp Kilmer, N.J. It was the only way he could get away from bagel baking.
The Lenders have had offers to sell out, but Murray can't forsee any offer that would make them sell when there are five children to inherit the bakery. "After 53 years in the business . . ." Murray says in a way that makes it clear it was a dumb question to ask.
Their father, Harry, emigrated from Poland to New Jersey where he practiced his craft of baking for six months. When the opportunity to own a small bakery came along in New Haven, Harry Lender moved his wife and children. For reasons unknown, "either it was the most imaginative thing or it was the dumbest," Murray says, his father decided to specialize in bagels.
How he expected to make a living selling bagels to 15,000 Jews in the metropolitan New Haven area in 1927, Murray Lender can't guess. In those days, not only were Jews the only people who ate bagels, they only ate them on weekends, and only with cream cheese and lox. "You couldn't make enough bagels on the weekend and you couldn't give them away Monday morning," Murray Lender explained. Bagels have a notoriously short shelf life. Traditionally they are eaten the same day they are baked. As recently as the early 1960s there were only 40 bagel bakers in the United States and 30 of them were in New York City. Today New York alone has 200.
That Washington and other large cities have places to buy fresh bagels is, in part, due to a general interest in ethnic food and, in part, due to Lenders. In 1965 the Lenders adapted baking equipment to produce a fully automated bagel and moved from the garage bakery behind the house to West Haven, buying a 12,000 foot plant on two floors.
"We thought we were such clever businessmen," Murray Lender said, "we would rent out one floor because 6,000 feet looked like Madison Square Garden to us." Fortunately they couldn't find a tenant. Within a few months they needed all the space.
At the same time the Lenders became the first to freeze bagels on a commercial scale, which meant they could travel the country at will. Freezer trucks could transport 2,400 dozen from coast to coast.
All the Lenders had to do was figure out how to get people to eat them, not only Saturdays and Sundays and not only with cream cheese and lox.
Going from a handcrafted bagel to one that is "fully automated" produces "a different" bagel, but not necessarily one of lesser quality, both Lenders insist. "I think whatever we gave up, and I'm not sure we have, we've made up for in quality control. Everything was done by feel and touch then," Marvin Lender explained. "But a good automated bagel is better than a poorly handcrafted one," Murray Lender added.
The Lenders won't even acknowledge that a homemade bagel is better. "It's not like making a cake or bread. The cooking and drying process is better than what can be done at home," Marvin said. "The bagel is automated but what we put in it hasn't changed. It contains no additives, no preservatives," a fact on which Lender's capitalizes. They are so concerned about quality they refuse to sell rejects at a thrift store. Instead, Murray said, "New Haven has a lot of happy pigs and cows."
What's put in may not have changed when you are talking about plain bagels, but even the plain bagel can no longer be described as a cement donut -- chewy, yes; petrified, no.For one thing, freezing them, and all Lender's bagels sold outside of New Haven are sold frozen, prevents rigormortis.
But what goes into bagels today would curl the hair of a 1920s bagel maven -- wheat germ, raisins, honey, cinnamon, bran, rye chops, sesame seeds. A non-Jew describes these modern varieties as "reformed bagels for gentiles." The latest combines the most basic of Jewish foods with its Italian counterpart, pizza. Listen, if you can put pizza topping on French bread, you certainly can put it on bagels. Actually the chewy, firm texture of a bagel makes a better base than French bread.
Lender's tries out all these new creations at H. Lender & Sons Bagel Bakers, Est. 1927, a Restaurant. "We made that name so even if you just mention the title you get a long story," Murray Lender kids over a bunch of bagels, bagels and more bagels. He moves between the self-deprecating Jewish humor and modern marketing executive-speak. "We opened the restaurant 1-1/2 years ago to test consumer response. We wanted to see what would happen in a non-Jewish environment. The whole concept is to showcase the bagel."
At the restaurant you can have bagels 20 different ways and bagels are served with everything else on the menu. Trying to make bagels something on which to put more than cream cheese and lox, or maybe butter for the more adventuresome, is the problem faced by bagel makers. "You have to convince Jews to try other ways and you have to convince other people just to try bagels, Murray Lender explains. So the packages of bagels contains recipes with names like Tuna Bagel Mexicali (tuna chili powder, black olives and cheddar cheese); Say-Cheese Bagel (Russian dressing, tomato and meunster); Bagel Luau (curried chicken salad, pineapple and peanuts), Healthnut Bagel (cream cheese, carrot, cashew, raisins and honey.)
"A bagel is not a sophisticated food," Murray Lender reminds you. "It's traditional and ethnic. I never wanted to position it as anything other than Jewish." But he wants people to do more than make jokes about it. "Everyone has fun with Jewish food and then goes ahead and eats Italian or French."
Not the Lenders. Both Murray and his brother each have at least one bagel a day. Their preference is for the new wheat 'n honey because of its coarse texture. Their children, they insist, all like bagels, with the exception of Murray's 11-year-old son, whom his father suspects doesn't like bagels because "it gets more attention."
Murray Lender thinks his firm and their bagels are in the right place at the right time. "There is a distinct trend away from commercial breads to specialty breads. Cut away the romance and the comedians' shtick and it's just a basic roll, but a yeast baked, slow developing, hearth-baked roll with good quality and texture. I don't care where your palate is coming from. You can't dislike it."