Not the real thing
The bagel is as American as pizza, tacos... or apple pie.
Originally thought of by many as a "Jewish English muffin," the bagel came to this country from eastern Europe -- particularly from Poland -- with the migration of Jews from that part of the world in the late 1880s and into the early 20th century. And for decades, bagels were pretty much a Jewish food. Beyond major cities with large Jewish populations, you would never find -- nor even hear of -- a bagel.
Before the advent of bagel stores (seemingly on almost every corner, at least here in New York City), bagels were produced in bagel factories and delivered in the early morning hours to bakeries, delis and restaurants. I remember, as a teen, driving down to the Bronx on a Saturday night to the bagel factory on Jerome Avenue to get a bag of a dozen bagels to bring home. The bagels were steaming hot and tasted fantastic.
Supposedly, New York bagels were the best. It was the water, we were told. My cousins in Cleveland, Baltimore and L.A. readily admitted the locally-baked bagels just weren't the same as the real thing from New York. My Montreal blogging friend Mark Goren challenged me to a taste test a couple of years ago, and I must reluctantly admit that the Montreal bagels he brought down to me were pretty damn good. So I'll re-do that last sentence to read... they weren't the same as the real thing from New York or Montreal. (I wonder how they compare to the original real thing from Krakow.)
And then Murray Lender came along. He took a business started by his father Harry in a New Haven garage and, with his brothers Marvin and Sam, made bagels available to the heartland. Harry, who came from Poland and hand-rolled the bagels himself for years, began freezing some of his product in the 1950s so he could sell it to bakeries and stores farther from New Haven. Fresh bagels, you see, don't have a long shelf life, as anyone who's ever bitten into a stale bagel will attest.
Murray led the company as it expanded its reach and became a staple of frozen food sections in supermarkets everywhere. Lender's frozen bagels became a popular sandwich bread, perfect for whitebread America to enjoy with peanut butter & jelly or ham & cheese. (Oy!)
Of course, real bagel aficionados frowned upon Lender's. And the idea of putting PB&J on a bagel was disgusting to those who felt a bagel just had to hold cream cheese and lox.
Murray and his family eventually sold Lender's to Kraft (just this week renamed Mondeeza, or Mondoleeza or something like that). And bagels, frozen little replicas of the real thing, became an American staple. Americans last year bought more than 140 million Lender's bagels, worth just under $41 million. That's a lot more than how many bagels were sold in Israel or probably even Poland.
Bagels -- even the frozen New York (or Montreal) wannabees -- are now a true American food. They've been mixed into what my friends Bob and Steven Frissora call America's salad bowl.
Murray Lender died Wednesday in Miami. He was 81.
No. Please, no. A bagel burger??