Courtesy of The New York Times - September 21, 2015
Daniel Thompson, who five decades ago automated the arcane art of bagel making, a development — seen variously as saving grace and sacrilege that has sent billions of mass-produced bagels raining down on theAmerican heartland, died on Sept. 3 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 94. His family announced the death last week.
A California math teacher turned inventor, Mr. Thompson was a shaper of postwar suburban culture in more than one respect: He also created the first wheeled, folding Ping-Pong table, a fixture of American basements from the mid-20th century onward.
But it was for the bagel machine that Mr. Thompson remained best known. The invention changed the American diet, ushering in the welter of packaged bagels — notably Lender’s — now found in supermarkets nationwide, and making the bagel a staple of fast-food outlets.
“There was a kind of schism in bagel-making history: pre-Daniel Thompson and post-Daniel Thompson,” Matthew Goodman, the author of “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” said in an interview on Monday. “What happened with the advent of the automated bagel-making machine was that bagel makers were capable of producing far more bagels than had
ever been imagined.” What was more, Mr. Thompson’s machine proved to be a mirror of
midcentury American history. For bound up in the story of its introduction is the story of Jewish assimilation, gastronomic homogenization, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of franchise retailing and the perennial tension between tradition and innovation.
If Mr. Thompson’s brainchild, in the eyes of grateful consumers, democratized the bagel, there remain mavens who charge that his machine, along with those of later inventors, denatured the soul of a cherished cultural artifact. To these stalwarts, centered in the bagel redoubts of New York and Montreal, even invective-rich Yiddish lacks words critical enough to describe a machine-made bagel, though “shande” — disgrace — perhaps comes closest.
“Is what happened to the bagel a good thing or a bad thing?” Mr. Goodman said on Monday. “To me, it’s kind of a tragic story. What happened is that the bagel lost, both literally and metaphorically, its Jewish flavor.”
The tough, round heart of North American Jewish cuisine, with European roots reaching back hundreds of years, the bagel was until the mid-1960s available only in cities with thriving Jewish neighborhoods, most emblematically New York. Its shape — which sprang from dough that was rolled by hand, coiled into rings and boiled in a kettle before being baked in a wood- or coal-fired oven — was said to symbolize the circle of life. Such bagels, prized by purists but increasingly difficult to find now, were known for an earthy taste, an elastic crumb and a glossy, dauntingly hard crust born of their turn in the kettle. The softer bagel that is ubiquitous
today, which idealists deplore as little more than cotton wool, arose partly as a consequence of mechanization: Some bagel-making machines (though not Mr. Thompson’s, his family said) can accommodate only a looser, more watery dough.
As vaunted as it was in American cities, the traditional bagel for years remained so obscure — so ethnic — that as late as 1960 The New York Times Magazine felt obliged to define it for a national readership as “an unsweetened doughnut with rigor mortis.” Bagel-making was still a skilled trade then, restricted to members of the International Beigel Bakers Union, as the name was Romanized after the organization was founded in New York in 1907. (Until well into the 1950s, the minutes of the union’s board meetings were taken down in Yiddish.)
The bagel-maker’s craft was passed down from father to son, fiercely guarded from outsiders’ prying eyes. In a contingency that seemed straight out of Damon Runyon, or perhaps “The Untouchables,” nonunion bakers trying to make and sell bagels risked paying for it with their kneecaps.
“Every bagel that was made in New York City up until the 1960s was a union bagel — every one,” Mr. Goodman said. “The reason why this union was strong was that they were the only ones who knew how to make a proper bagel. And that was the keys to the kingdom.” The union — New York’s Local 338, with some 300 members — could hold the entire metropolitan area gastronomic hostage and, in disputes with bakery owners over working conditions, often did.
“Bagel Famine Threatens in City,” an alarmed headline in The Times read in 1951, as a strike loomed. (It was followed the next day by the immensely reassuring “Lox Strike Expert Acts to End the Bagel Famine.”) Then, in the early 1960s, Mr. Thompson’s machine changed the bagel
The son of Meyer Thompson, a Jewish baker of bagels from Hull, England, and the former Annette Berman, Abraham Thomas Thompson was born on Jan. 16, 1921, in Winnipeg, Canada, where his father had established a bakery. When he was a few weeks old, to memorialize a cousin who had recently died, his parents changed his name to Daniel. The family moved to Los Angeles when Daniel was a baby. As a young man he served in World War II with the Army Air Forces in the Pacific; he later graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he studied industrial arts and mathematics. Afterward, Mr. Thompson taught high
school math and junior high school wood shop in Los Angeles. Like his father before him, Mr. Thompson was a tinkerer. In 1953, hereceived United States patent No. 2,645,539 for his “Folding Table, Tennis Table, or the Like.” Though the table did not make him wealthy, his family said, it did give him the wherewithal to attain the grail his father had long
sought: an automated bagel maker. The elder Mr. Thompson had experimented with a series of bagel-making machines over the years, but none proved commercially viable. In the late
1950s, the son perfected the father’s creation, building a functional machine that took the labor out of rolling and forming the dough. “It meant that any Joe off the street could make a bagel,” Mr. Goodman explained. “And that was one of a confluence of factors that in less than a generation turned the bagel, which had once been smaller and crusty and flavorful, into something that is large and pillowy and flavorless — it had turned into the kind of baked good that Americans like, à la Wonder Bread.”
In 1961, Mr. Thompson and his wife, Ada, established the Thompson Bagel Machine Manufacturing Corporation. Two years later, Lender’s, which had been making bagels in New Haven since the 1920s, leased the first Thompson machine. Where a traditional bagel baker could produce about 120 bagels in an hour, Mr. Thompson’s machine let a single unskilled worker turn out 400. This allowed Lender’s to make bagels in immense quantities and sell them, bagged and frozen, in supermarkets. Before long, as The NYBaker’s Bench, a culinary website, observed, theThompson machine, “like the steam drill and John Henry, put the handrollers of New York’s Local 338 out of business.” Mr. Thompson resided in Palm Desert, Calif. Besides his wife, the former Ada Schatz, whom he married in 1946, his survivors include two sons, Stephen and Craig, who now oversee the family bagel-machine business; a daughter, Leslie; a brother, Robert; and three grandchildren.
Lender’s, which still uses Thompson machines, is today among the largest makers of bagels in the United States, producing 750 million a year. The largest direct retailer of bagels in the country, which last year sold consumers more than 224 million in flavors like multigrain, cinnamon raisin and blueberry, is Dunkin’ Donuts. The company’s offerings also include a “bagel twist” — an elongated strand of baked dough in which the circle of life has been broken entirely.