Last month’s death of 94-year-old Daniel Thompson opened some old wounds and memories in New York. Up until 1960 every bagel made in the city had been a union bagel. Protecting strict Jewish tradition of passing recipes secretly from father to son, the union exercised control over bagel production beginning in 1907. When, in 1951 a bagel famine loomed over the city because of an announced strike, the union saved the day by quashing the move. But then in 1960 Daniel Thompson invented the bagel-making machine, which is capable to manufacture 4800 bagels an hour. The machine destroyed many small producers and the union. Manufacturing of bagels became massive and spread out to other ethnic populations in the city. But nevertheless, in New York one can still hear complaints that there is nothing like those bagels from half a century ago….
Not in my neighborhood. A few blocks away from my apartment in New York is a bakery specialized in bagel making. Every Saturday and Sunday there is a one-block-long line, and one has to wait half an hour to get a fresh, still hot bagel, coming from an oven (which no longer bears any relation Thompson’s machine). The bagel shop is run by of Asian people, men work like stokers, feeding large trays of bagels in and out of massive ovens; one lady takes the $1. per bagel in cash – and it’s cash only.
Absolute Bagel – the name of the shop- is perennially #1 in “The City’s Best” awards. And it is absolutely the best. The Asian management, always racing to meet customer demand from that endless line, doesn’t talk much. We don’t know if they bought the secret recipe from some traditional Jewish producer. I sometimes wonder what they are putting in those bagels that they are so good and irresistible, prompting patrons go to great lengths to buy one
Yesterday, as a hurricane in the distant Atlantic bought rain and high winds to New York City, my wife made the pilgrimage to Absolute Bagel to buy two bagels for us, undeterred by the weather. The line was still impossibly long.
As she moved along, nearing the store’s entrance, a Japanese tourist approached the waiting customers. “What’s this line for?” he asked in limited English, thinking perhaps he’d happened accidentally upon a one of New York City’s landmarks.
“Bagels,” a student in front responded.
“What’s that?” he asked.
The students offered various complicated explanations he didn’t understand and then finally said: “It’s bread.”
He nodded, and pondered, still looking perplexed. A bread line in New York? “Thank you. It must be good.”
A Jewish food, once protected by secrets and unions, now manufactured by Asian immigrants. It was in a way a New York landmark.