29 June 2011

Close to Home

2011 in History

Mubarak, Egypt, Arab Spring, America, China, Middle East, Israel, Saudi Arabia, allies, Obama  : Dry Bones cartoon.
Mr. History is a fairly new Dry Bones character. As it becomes more and more obvious that we are at a major turning point in history I find myself using him more and more frequently.

Delivering bad news through a gag cartoon is a challenge, but Mr. History makes it easy through his “looking back at today” approach.

-Dry Bones- Israel’s Political Comic Strip Since 1973

‘MK’ Glenn Beck to Address Knesset Glenn Beck, who plans a “Restoring Courage” rally in Jerusalem, also will tell a Knesset panel about fighting efforts to delegitimize Israel.


By Gil Marks

H & H Bagels is located (at least it is for the next few hours) on the corner of Broadway and 80th Street. If I stick my head out of my window, I can literally see it. When the wind blew in the right direction, I could sometimes get a whiff of freshly baked bagels. H & H was here when I moved into the Upper West Side and I always assumed that it would be that way. H & H opened its doors in 1972 and quickly became unquestionably the best known bagel store in the world. That status was cemented by its inclusion on the Seinfeld show. H & H was open every day, including Yom Kippur, seven days a week 24 hours a day. Then a few days ago, I walked by and noticed that the store’s sign and awning were missing. I simply assumed that they were doing some remodeling after all these years. Then I heard the news that the store was closing, as the owner has recently faced serious tax and other financial problems.
To tell the truth, I haven’t stepped foot in H & H in years. When I first moved to the neighborhood, I went in on a regular basis to enjoy the fresh, warm bagels. I avoided H & H on Sundays, however, when lines typically snaked out of the front door. Then the prices started to skyrocket, and I went less frequently. As the prices continued to soar, I stopped going in altogether, as I had no intention of paying so much for a single plain bagel. I understand the current price was $1.40 for one. Still, I’ll miss not having it around.
The bagel’s uniqueness comes from being boiled in water before baking, a step that produces a uniquely crisp crust and moist, chewy interior. The boiling water kills any yeast on the bagel’s surface, restricting the rising of the bagel during baking, thereby maintaining its shape. The water bath also helps to create its unique shine by gelatinizing the starches on the surface. At one time a little lye was added to the water to help produce a glossy crust. Today, barley malt syrup generally serves that purpose. In Montreal, where hand-made bagels are still commonplace, they use honey.

In light of the bagel’s current ubiquity in America, it is often difficult to imagine that just a few decades ago this crusty, chewy ring-shaped bread was basically unknown outside of Jewish circles. As late as February 4, 1956, The New York Times tried to explain the bagel as “a form of Jewish baked goods sometimes described as a doughnut with rigor mortis, will not disappear from New York tables.”
Bagel, beigel in Yiddish, is related to the similar medieval pretzel, the soft kind. The name may be derived from bougal, a Middle High German word for “ring,” or beigen, a Yiddish word for “bend.” A widespread but erroneous legend claims that bagels were created in 1683 by a Viennese baker who formed some pretzels into the shape of a stirrup (buegel in German) to honor the role of a Polish prince, Jan Sobieski, and his cavalry in a victory over Turks besieging the city. However, this bread was mentioned in the records of the Krakow Jewish community dating seventy-three years prior to that event, affirming that bagels were an appropriate gift for pregnant women about to give birth and to midwives, at which time it was already well established among Polish Jews. Bagels did not, however, make much of an impact in the surrounding areas of Germany or Russia, where it was unknown or forgotten.
In Poland, bagel-making was predominantly women’s work, and only Jewish women, unlike black bread, which was made in commercial bakeries by men. Women would make bagels at home and then usually her husband or children would take them out to sell. Following the impoverization of Poland in the wake of the Cossack massacres in the mid-seventeenth century, bagels served as breakfast and lunch for the masses of Polish Jews, for working men as well as school children, eaten plain or with a shmear of butter or schmaltz (rendered chicken fat).
Beginning in the 1880s, Eastern European Jews began to arrive in the United States in great numbers, bringing with them the bagel. Here too, it was initially women who made bagels at home. In Charleston, West Virginia, Mrs. Lottie Kanner, an Eastern European immigrant, turned out some of the world’s best bagels, even as an elderly widow, from a small room attached to the back of her house.
In New York City, however, men quickly assumed control of the occupation. Enough demand developed that there were three hundred bagel bakers in New York City in 1910, who banded together to form the International Bagel Baker’s Union, Local #338. (After the advent of the bagel machine and the disappearance of unionized bagel makers, the union shifted to represent grocery workers and others.) This was a very restrictive group, with membership passed down from father to sons. Recipes and techniques were zealously-guarded family secrets. For the following half-century, bagels were all made by hand, customarily in groups of four –- two men shaping the bagels, one boiling them, and one baker. Ambidextrous shapers would roll pieces of dough simultaneously in each hand, pressing the ends to form a ring. The kettleman dropped bunches of dough rings into a bath of lightly boiling water, then at the right moment pulled them from the vat. The baker used a long, thin paddle to insert the bagels into the wood ovens, then, when golden brown, to remove and flip them into wooden boxes, each typically containing 64 bagels. Workers, usually laboring in cramped cellars, were paid by the piece –- constituting 19 cents a box in 1910. (Although this might not seem like much in twenty-first century terms, it was a living wage back then, far greater than the salary of contemporary non-unionized bakers.) An experienced team could churn out 6,400 bagels (that’s 100 boxes) in a single overnight shift. As late as the 1950s, New York City still had more than 30 bagel makers practicing their craft in the traditional manner.
Peddlers purchased a supply of fresh bagels and hawked them from carts in the Lower East Side, later expanding the territory to other parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In New York’s multi-ethnic neighborhoods, many non-Jews began discovering the bagel, augmenting its audience. Nevertheless, bagels remained primarily a Jewish specialty food for the first half of the twentieth century, although some changes began to occur. As the immigrants became more established and well to do, the bagel became less of staple, eventually ending up as a Sunday morning treat. Toppings expanded to include poppy seeds, sesame seeds, caraway seeds, dried onions, garlic, kosher salt, and “everything,” a combination of all six. Whereas in Europe, bagels were never employed as sandwiches, in America they began to attract various fillings. When during the 1930s, many Jews abstained from eating then stylish but decidedly unkosher American Sunday brunch classic “eggs Benedict,” they substituted lox slices for the ham, a shmear of cream cheese for the hollandaise sauce, and a bagel for the English muffin. Thus was born an American classic. For neither lox nor cream cheese had ever touched a bagel in Eastern Europe.
During the mid-twentieth century, Jewish culture, including its food, began to noticeably impact on the larger American culture. In 1951, a Broadway musical titled Bagels and Yox, by Sholom Secunda (perhaps best known for the Andrews Sisters 1939 hit “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” and the 1965 Joan Baez cover “Dona, Dona, Dona”) and Hy Jacobson, debuted. During intermission, bagels, then still unknown in many circles, were distributed to the audience. Although the play turned out to be less than a critical or commercial success, the ploy caught the attention of the media. As a result, Time Magazine mentioned bagels for the first time and Family Circle even provided a recipe for curious readers.
In 1921, brothers Meyer “Mickey” and Harry Thompson relocated from Winnipeg, Canada, to Los Angeles eventually opening a bakery on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights, then the site of the largest Jewish community in California, offering various Jewish baked goods, including bagels. For decades, Mickey and a number of individuals, hoping to expand production, while not incidentally breaking the union monopoly, struggled to invent a bagel-making machine. Unfortunately, all of these endeavors resulted in machines that were infeasible (burning the dough or killing the yeast) or too inefficient and expensive. Finally in 1962, Thompson’s son, Daniel, inventor of the first folded ping pong table, fulfilled his father’s quest, creating a machine that eliminated hand-rolling and was capable of extruding up to 400 bagels an hour; later large-scale commercial models could turn out nearly 5,000 an hour. Ironically, the major American machine companies declined to produce the Thompson Bagel Machine, feeling that the bagel market would never be large enough to justify the expense of manufacturing the contraptions. Union protests managed to keep the new machine out of New York, at least temporarily. However, one of the other major bagel bakers in the country was interested, and, in August 1963, Thompson installed his first machine in the Lender’s plant in New Haven. There was one problem with Lender’s acquisition, the bakery was now producing more bagels than the geographic limitations of Connecticut could consume. This led to frozen bagels, now found in every American supermarket.
Within a few years, almost every major bagel baker in America was using Thompson’s machine. Now anyone who wanted to could enter the bagel business. In 1972, two Puerto Rican brothers-in-law, Helmer Toro and Hector Hernandez, founded H & H Bagels, demonstrating that bagels were no longer merely Jewish fare. The number of bagel stores nationwide jumped to 1,500 in 1994 and more than 9,000 in 1998.
The quality of the average bagel, however, greatly declined. Steaming instead of boiling bagels results in a softer, less chewy inside and less crusty exterior. Bagels that are not boiled are merely rolls with a hole in the center. Somme commercial bagels are irritatingly soft and cloying sweet. There are still a very few hand-made bagel stores in the New York area, but they are far and few between.
In Israel, similar to early twentieth century America, a few eastern European immigrants boiled and baked bagels in their home kitchen. However, as these women died, so did the Israeli bagels. Then in 1994, Bonkers Bagels opened in Jerusalem, using a machine to produce American-style bagels. Other bagel stores soon followed and today in Israel bagels, from plain to sun-dried tomato with toppings from cream cheese to za’atar, are now commonplace.
Although H & H plans to continue to make bagels from another location, the world’s most famous bagel store will very shortly become a memory.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s