How one man helped turn a Jewish specialty into a starchy love affair with the American masses

Daniel ThompsonCourtesy of Steven ThompsonDaniel Thompson in 1968 with his bagel machine, which spurred the mass production of bagels.

There’s a lot of debate about who makes the best bagel in America, and it’s thanks to Daniel Thompson that bagel snobs are able to have this discussion.

Thompson, who died on September 3 in California, at the age of 94, fathered an invention so powerful it introduced the Jewish specialty food popular in New York to people across America — and for that, he earns a spot in all bagel lovers’ hearts.

In 1963, Thompson, the son of a bagel man, sucessfuly leased out an automated bagel making machine that could produce about 4,800 bagels in an hour, according to his son, Stephen Thompson.

The machine was adopted by Lender’s, one of the nation’s largest bagel bakeries and the first to mass-produce and freeze bagels. By the late 1960s, Lender’s produced thousands of bagels a day to be sold around the country using Thompson’s invention, according to the Washington Post.

These days, the American Institute of Baking notes, sales of bagel brands in the US over a 52-week period ending in May, 2013 totaled more than $US592 million.

As Lily Rothman wrote in the Washington Post, “Bagels became a reality in corners of the country where they had previously been a rumour, a whisper in the wind off New York Harbour.”

Daniel Thompson bagel machineCourtesy of Stephen Thompson.Mickey and Daniel Thompson.

Matthew Goodman, author of “Jewish Food: The World at the Table,” tells As it Happens host, Carol Off, that — in a way — the invention of the bagel machine democratized the bagel. “The bagel ceased being an identifiably Jewish food and really became an American food.”

According to Slate’s Short History of the Bagel, bagels made their way to America with the mass Jewish migration, and by 1900, 70 bakeries existed on the Lower East side of New York City. Around that time, bagels were only produced by a small group of bakers who were part of the International Beigel Bakers Union, Goodman says.

Daniel ThompsonCourtesy of Stephen Thompson.Daniel and Mickey Thompson making bagels and doughnuts in 1970.

Around 1918, Thompson’s father, Mickey, hoped to boost his bakery business and patented his first bagel machine, the Los Angeles Times reports.

He continued to work on his prototypes for the bagel machine in his garage for many years, later with his 11-year-old son’s help, but none proved commercially viable.

In the late 1950s, the son borrowed some of his father’s ideas and perfected his design by making it simpler and faster.

To this day, the Thompson Bagel Machine uses cup guides to form the dough as opposed to belts, which Stephen says requires a change in bagel formulation. “They’re not making bagels anymore, they’re making bread,” he said of companies that change their dough formulas to accomodate belt machines.

Thanks to Thompson’s invention and the family’s improvements along the way, companies like Einstein Bros Bagels are able to make more than 5,400 bagels an hour.

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