A Bagel Infamnia – (Italian: Shame)

by John Delach

Growing up Catholic in Ridgewood was the urban equivalent of living in a small town. We didn’t have a single supermarket when I was a child, but we did have specialty stores for everything we needed. A butcher, a pork store, a bakery, delicatessens, candy and newspaper shops, a green grocer, florist and two A&Ps that were no bigger than local delis. We had Penisi, the shoe maker, and Penisi the barber, laundries, a tailor, Doctor Koch and Dr. Bongeorno, the dentist. For bad times we had drug stores, churches and funeral parlors. Finally, when I was nine or ten, a single Bohack supermarket was built on a vacant lot seven blocks away.


The food we ate reflected our isolation. My mother made sandwiches on Tip Top, Wonder, Silvercup or Tasty white bread, each as bland and tasteless as any other. On rare occasions like Dwight David Eisenhower’s election in 1952 or when the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, she would celebrate buying a loaf of Arnold’s Brick Oven white bread. A grilled cheese sandwich on Arnold’s Bread, “My tongue would throw a party for my mouth.”


But other than these world class events, the only normal exception to my bland bread diet came on weekends when I was detailed to go to Eichler’s deli to buy Kaiser rolls or bagels. Both were scrumptious and over time my taste buds came to prefer the bagels produced by authentic kosher bakeries. In retrospect, I am certain that they were a day old when we bought them but these plain gems were all we knew.


This isolation lasted until friends and I gained access to cars that led us to discover a single bagel bakery located in Fresh Meadows on the service road to the Long Island Expressway called, Bagel Oasis. This holy of holies offered fresh, hot, delicious bagels. Not just plain; a universe of salt, onion, garlic, poppy, sesame bagels and (are you ready for it?)…cinnamon raisin. “Strike me down Lord, for I have witnessed the Promised Land!”


Bagel Oasis broke the barrier of our isolation as we realized a whole new world of bagels was out there. Did the number of bagel stores proliferate or was I finally set free? It didn’t matter and, with the exception of high Jewish holidays when the stores and their bakers closed in observance, bagels were plentiful across the Metropolitan area.


But these edible gems never traveled well restricting their production to areas with substantial Jewish populations. Why? The International Bagel Bakers Union founded in New York in 1907 was an exclusive trade organization that actually kept its minutes in Yiddish well into the 1950s. Nor were they eager to have non-union bakers share their craft and were not adverse to employing strong-arm tactics to enforce this.


So you were out of luck in scoring a bagel unless you lived in New York, Miami, Montreal or a few other places. Then along came Daniel Thompson, son of Meyer Thompson, from Hull, England. Daniel was born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1921 and recently passed away in 2015 at the age of 94.


This Canadian inventor, who created the first wheeled, folding Ping-Pong table, successfully engineered a bagel-making machine in 1961 that out-produced what a single baker could hand-fold by 280 bagels an hour. The NY Baker’s Bench observed: “…like the steam drill (versus) John Henry, (it) put hand-rollers of New York’s Local 338 out of business.”


Granted, at first glance made from a distance, the new concoction looked like a bagel, but as The New York Times reported in Mr. Thompson’s obituary, “…idealists deplore (it) as little more than cotton wool…” or as Wonder Bread encased in an edible  plastic shell.


The Times continued: “…even invective-rich Yiddish lacks words critical enough to describe a machine-made bagel, though shande – disgrace – perhaps comes closest.”


I prefer: “Bagel Infamnia.”


Nevertheless, RIP Daniel Thompson