‘A bagel creation that would have my parents turning over in their graves is the oat-bran bagel with blueberries and strawberries. It’s an ill conceived bagel form if there ever was one.’ Ed Levine, New York Eats.
The term ‘Americanisation’ is thrown around in historical writings like a Jewish groom during Hava Nagila. However, the mass Jewish immigration of the late 19th century from Eastern Europe to America set in motion a true story of Americanisation. The victim? The humble bagel.
The immigration of Jews into America began with the promise of economic freedom and the escape from rising Anti-Semitism in the East. The pogroms in Russia of the early 1880s following the assassination of Alexander II are a typical example of the anti-Semitic atmosphere that was rife in much of Eastern Europe at the time. The pogroms acted as a catalyst for this exodus of Jewish migrants and by 1924, two million Jews had arrived from Eastern Europe and one million of those had settled in New York.
The bagel made a timid start in America and existed as a purely ethnic phenomenon for decades. As late as 1957, the New York Times felt obliged to inform its readers that ‘a bagel is a kind of hard roll with a hole in the centre.’ The first bagel bakeries were confined to New York’s lower east side in basements of cheap tenement buildings in Jewish ghettos which allowed for the easy installation of brick ovens. But with the 1907 establishment of the Bagel Bakers Union and the emergence of individual bagel shops onto street level in the early 1960s, Jewish bagel men had ascended into the New York middle class.
However the success of Jewish bakeries was short lived and in 1963 Daniel Thompson, an American entrepreneur, invented a machine capable of making 2,400 bagel in an hour. The result was nothing short of catastrophic for bagel bakers. In keeping with the rest of America’s fast food industry came the watermark of American gastronomy: supersizing. The traditional two and a half ounce bagel now had the same amount of dough in as needed for one third of a loaf of bread. Bagels were sold in McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts across the country. Once a little known ethnic food, within the span of two generations the bagel had become as American as apple pie and far more ubiquitous.
So now, just over 50 year later you can look out over New York’s lower east side, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see a high water mark. That place, where the wave finally broke and rolled back, of the traditional Jewish bagel.