Bagels are sufficiently ubiquitous to make physical description unnecessary, but let’s do it anyway: They are round rolls, made of flour, yeast salt and water. They can be topped with salt, poppy or sesame seeds, or infused with things like onions or (heaven help us) blueberries. Unlike other breads, bagels are boiled before baking, giving them a hard outer crust and a chewy interior. As recently as the 1960s, this information was not necessarily common knowledge, especially outside of New York City. In 1960, The New York Times famously identified bagels for still-clueless readers as “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.”
The bagel’s origin is murky. One tale pins its development to the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski, who in 1683 defeated the Turks and saved Austria. In homage to the king’s victorious cavalry, a local baker shaped some dough like a stirrup and called it a beugel (old German for “stirrup”). Then again, bagel references can be found dating back to 1610 in Krakow, so who knows? Even the name bagel (which was spelled “beigel” or “beygel” when immigrants first arrived in the United States with it) could come from the German biegen (“to bend”), or bougel (“ring” or “bracelet”). An even older tale stems to the Middle Ages, when bread was associated with Jesus Christ via the Holy Eucharist, and non-Christians were denied permission to bake. Eventually, a Prussian duke cleared the way for Jews to cook non-baked bread, and thus was the first-ever bagel boiled.
The earliest bagels were likely huge, a foot in diameter, and designed to last for months, like hardtack—perfect for a long ocean voyage. Upon becoming city food, they evolved into small, dense rings, perfect for street vendors to hang from long sticks. Bagels became an ethnic food after Jews in Russia and Ukraine were forced into culturally homogenous shtetls and barred them from a diversity of employment. Thus did many end up as bakers. Upon moving to the U.S., these immigrants’ limited skill sets locked them into familiar jobs, which, in the case of bagel baking, was aimed at a demographic that already appreciated it.
The first bagels baked in the United States in the late 1800s, by Eastern European immigrants, weighed about two ounces, or one-third the size of the modern fare. Given their lack of preservatives, they lasted only a few hours in the open air before hardening beyond edible proportions.
Those bagels were baked mostly in tenement basements in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is where furnaces could be found and converted to ovens. The conditions were hot, noxious and decidedly unhealthy. An 1895 report from New York State’s factory inspectors observed that “there appears to be no other industry, not even the making of clothes in sweat-shops, which is carried on amid so much dirt and filth.”
Bagels were crafted by crews of up to four bakers, with one or two working the “bench,” where they cut the thick dough into strips, divided those strips into segments, and rolled the segments into bagels. The most skilled rollers could shape hundreds of bagels per hour—as quickly as one every two or three seconds—for hours on end. The kettleman (the low man on the totem, also responsible for cleanup) transferred the raw bagels into a vat of boiling water, from which the oven man—the crew chief—readied them for baking. This was the least forgiving job, as the boiling-hot bagels first had to be transferred onto a rack, and then slid into and out of a 500-degree blast furnace, a process that repeated itself endlessly throughout a shift.
For decades, bagel production in New York City—which for the most part meant bagel production, period—was run through Union Local 338, which apportioned bakers on an as-needed basis to the city’s bakeries. During this time, bakers earned as much as high-end plumbers or electricians.
The advent of the stainless steel rotating oven in the 1950s allowed bakeries to move their operations to street level and create for the first time a direct-to-consumer retail opportunity. Advent of preservatives and freezing techniques meant that bagels, or bagel dough, could be shipped over long distances and still maintain elasticity. The invention of the bagel machine—a device that could spit out more bagels per hour with a single untrained worker than a team of artisans could ever hope to match—meant the end of the union and the beginning of the bagel as a common American food item. The launch of chains like Noah’s and Einstein Bros. brought us ever more distant from the artisan craftsmanship of the hand-rolled bagels of yore, but insured that, wherever one travels, a bagel will not be far away.