History of Bagels

It is believed that bagels were invented by a Jewish baker in Vienna in 1683. To thank King John III Sobieski of Poland for saving the city from Turkish invaders, the anonymous baker crafted a hard roll in the shape of a riding stirrup, in honor of the King’s favorite hobby. The bread’s original name was “bugel,” from the German for stirrup.

After the bread spread to Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe, its name evolved, but its formulation – a thrifty and unembellished blend of yeast, malt syrup and flour – remained unchanged for three centuries. After being brought to America by Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century, the recipe was fiercely safeguarded by Bagel Bakers Local 338, a union of 300 workers based in New York City. By limiting admission to sons of members, the union insured perpetuation of the time-honored technique – and a perpetual shortage of the bread. "My 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," said Michael Yoss. Bagel Bakers Local 338 was to the floury, steamy world of bagels what Jimmy Hoffa’s teamsters were to trucking.

The closed shop, with its closely held secrets, wasn’t broken until the early 1960’s when Dan Thompson, the Canadian scion of a European bagel baker, introduced the Thompson Bagel Machine which rolls and shapes bagels. This innovation reduced the dependence on union bagel makers – the union is no longer active – and paved the way for mass production.

Officials in the industry agree that Lender’s Bagels, a bakery opened in 1927 by a Polish immigrant, Harry Lender, in New Haven, turned “bagel” into a household word. In 1962, he began using the Thompson machine and getting his packaged, frozen rolls into grocery stores nationwide. The proliferation of the machine paralleled the slow spread of bagel savvy.

Other companies have introduced ovens that steam and bake the bagels, eliminating, in many bakeries, the traditional boiling kettle. Although the steam ovens are more efficient, they are the nadir of Old Bageldom.

My 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,

“The cement doughnut was extremely chewy and dense,” said Mr. Wirtz of the Baking Institute, “But it was limited. All you could do was eat it. The softer bagels are more versatile. You can make sandwiches out of them, little pizzas, even slice them and bake them to eat like taco chips.” In the trade, he said the softer, steamed bagel is called a California style or sandwich bagel and it is a runaway success.

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