These are the kind of people who might sniff at the accomplishments of Daniel Thompson, the math teacher turned inventor who developed the modern bagel machine.
But for those whose schnozes aren’t too high in the air to enjoy the smell of a more populist breakfast, Thompson’s invention was a godsend. It made the niche New York specialty available across America, begetting a billion dollar industry and turning the bagel into a breakfast staple as far away as Kansas and California.
Thompson, who died in Palm Desert, Calif., this month at age 94, is remembered for fundamentally changing the art of bagel baking.
Which era we’re better off in is still up for debate. The machine may have democratized a delicious breakfast food, but it also homogenized a hallowed cultural heirloom.
Thompson, the son of a Jewish bakery owner in Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, knew and respected the traditional method of preparing the beloved baked good. Brought to the U.S. by Polish immigrants in the 19th century, the process required four men, time and finesse, according to the Los Angeles Times. For decades, bagels could be found only in cities with large Jewish populations, and even then, only by those who knew where to look.
Bagel-making knowledge was handed down from father to son and carefully protected by the Bagel Bakers Local 338. Michael Yoss, a bagel maker in Atlanta, told the New York Times in 1993 that his father ran a bakery in Brooklyn, “but he never made a bagel because he couldn’t get into the union, and they would have broken his legs if he made bagels without being in the union.”
When members of the union struck in 1951, the dire New York Times headline read, “Bagel Famine Threatens in City; Labor Dispute Puts Hole in Supply.” A resolution was brokered by mediator Murray Nathan, who had honed his negotiating skills during the Great Lox Strike of 1947.
But Thompsons senior and junior both dreamed of a world in which bagel availability was not so capricious and tightly controlled. Meyer Thompson, Daniel’s father, was obsessed by the question of mechanization. But his endless tinkering was largely fruitless, turning out bagels that were too hard, too slow or too costly.
Like his father, Thompson was a tinkerer. His less controversial cultural legacy is a patent for the foldable ping-pong table, developed after too much time spent assembling and breaking down his unwieldy traditional table every time he wanted to play.
In the late 1950s, after serving in the Air Force and getting his degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, Thompson set his sights on his father’s long-held ambition. He soon came up with a viable model: a huge contraption that rolled, pressed and shaped dough into perfect circles.
By 1961, according to a history written by Thompson, he and his wife had established the Thompson Bagel Machine Manufacturing Corporation, and Thompson began shopping around for a buyer. Several bakeries turned him down, Thompson wrote, “the bagel market was not large enough to justify the great expense.”
But Murray Lender, the head of Lenders Bagels in New Haven, Conn., looked at Thompson’s design and saw the future.
In 1964, with the help of Thompson’s automated bagel making machine, Lenders began churning out hundreds of bagels an hour, freezing them and shipping them to supermarkets across the country. Local 338 swiftly sunk in the now-flooded bagel market, and their old-school techniques vanished with them. Bagels became almost as ubiquitous as Wonder Bread, and, critics say, just as tasteless.
“It’s kind of a tragic story,” Goodman told the New York Times. “What happened is that the bagel lost, both literally and metaphorically, its Jewish flavor.”
The proliferation of the bagel machine necessitated some unfortunate changes in how the beloved baked good was made. The sticky bagel dough gummed up the works of many machines, forcing a transition to a drier dough that produced a lighter, more bread-like bagel. Efforts to replace the traditional boiling step with a steam bath during baking sounded the death knell of the hard, blistered crust.
Mass producers also shifted their recipes to suit the whims of the American consumer. When people were put off by the traditional bagel’s yeasty toughness, it became softer and blander. When people demanded flavors — blueberry and cheddar cheese and, perish the thought, chocolate chip— they offered those too. And when Americans wanted bigger bagels, because, let’s face it, Americans want bigger everything, it morphed into a fluffy behemoth.
Bagel stalwarts were appalled.
“A real bagel has to be handmade,” Abe Mosokowitz, a third-generation bagel baker in Queens, told the New York Times in 1989. “… If it’s soft, it’s not a bagel. If you want a soft bagel, buy a roll.”
“It’s an outrage,” Nach Waxman, owner of a Manhattan cookbook store, fumed four years later. “No crust, no character, no nothing.”
Asked what he thought of newer bagel flavors, Waxman seethed: “This kind of perversity should be prohibited by law.”
But proponents argue that men like Thompson and Lender were not the villainous enablers of bagel decline. In 2012, when Lender died at age 81, Brooklyn-based writer Lily Rothman noted that his company’s “frozen toroids opened the door for the proliferation of bagel shops,” bringing the hand-made bagel to cities that had never heard of such a thing fifty years ago.
Thompson is survived by his wife, Ada; a daughter, Leslie; and two sons, who now oversee the bagel machine business. In the history posted on the company’s website, Thompson radiates pride in his children, touting Steve’s management skills and Craig’s computer genius.
In the end, Thompson was a bagel lover who passed on his trade to his sons. Just like the bagel makers of yore.