Farewell to the Bagel Man

Great bagels are a transcendent experience.

Murray Lender, who brought bagels to the masses and made Lender’s Bagels into a national brand, died this week. What better time to reflect upon all the great Bagels We Have Known?

Murray Lender once presided over a ceremony featuring the World's Biggest Bagel. He would turn bagels into a food juggernaut by introducing it beyond the Jewish community.

Without Lender, we’d still be eating toast every morning. It was Lender who turned bagels from a strictly Jewish food enjoyed with lox into a breakfast staple — enjoyed by many millions of people of all ethnicities. He did this by freezing many of the bagels sold fresh at his dad’s New Haven bagel bakery and selling them at supermarkets. Lenders Bagels would eventually go national and introduce the treat to Gentiles everywhere. Without Lender there would be no Brueggers, Einstein’s Bagels, Manhattan Bagels, Finagle a Bagel and other national chains.

Those of us in midlife can surely remember those primitive years before the Great Bagel Awakening, when bagels were a rare specialty. When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mom would travel about 25 minutes from our home to the only bagel place we knew, Original Bagel, along City Line Avenue near Philadelphia. Fortunately, another bagel store opened in the 70s at the Bazaar of All Nations, a rundown department store about five minutes from us. A bag of piping hot bagels became the ultimate way to start to the morning.

In college at Penn State, a large bunch of us at the student newspaper staff enjoyed a bagel party one night after somebody brought back a hoard after a visit to a big city. Back then, in the days before digital photography, we had a photo dryer in the darkroom, which was perfect for toasting the bagels en masse. The newspaper staff’s late-night bagel feast, washed down by copious amounts of beer, inspired me to write a poem on the spot. Fortunately for you I can’t remember all of that beer-emboldened “Ode To A Bagel,” but it began this way: “O donut-shaped morsel, so tasty and chewy…without thee, what have we to see the night through-y?”

As a working girl in downtown Philadelphia, one of my favorite haunts was Bagel Nosh, located on Chestnut Street. That was the first time I had a bagel sandwich…my favorite was chicken salad and muenster cheese on a half-and-half bagel. Still, that was in the late 70s and bagels were by no means everywhere.

But as more people discovered bagels, the bagel chains would ultimately help spread what Lender began. Even after the food took off, Lender remained a cheerful evangelist for bagels for decades. He cashed out of his business in 1984 with a $90 million sale of Lenders Bagels to Kraft, but never stopped beating the drum for his products.

“I never met anyone who didn’t like bagels,” he said once.

I wonder what Lender thought of all the ways his signature product has been interpreted recently. Until bagels became a widespread commodity, one could buy them in only a few flavors: plain, poppy or sesame seed, onion, and sometimes cinnamon raisin.

Today it seems that the bagel has become any food that’s donut-shaped but not a donut. Even MacDonald’s sells them, although they are little more than Wonder Bread with a hole. Over time, Lenders’ many imitators would introduce abominations such as blueberry bagels, asiago cheese bagels and green bagels (for St. Patty’s Day). Perhaps these fusion bagels are an attempt to appeal to other ethnicities (Brueggers makes a wonderful rosemary and olive oil bagel, but is it really a bagel?) One can also buy salt bagels. Why not just twist the dough a few more times and call it a pretzel?

Brueggers even makes a square bagel. And our relatives on Long Island introduced us to “flagels,” which are flattened bagels. They are delicious but look like something that the Beverly Hillbillies would pick up from the road with a pitchfork.

Of course, bagels have joined the pantheon of bad foods for people who are eschewing carbs. My in-laws in California love going to a nearby bagel place, called I Love Bagels, and buying a hollowed-out bagel stuffed with chicken salad or another topping. I’ve tried it and liked it, but can’t help wondering: What’s the point?

A real traditional bagel, enjoyed in its full splendor, is a glorious experience…just the right resistance on its crust and the right density inside. Not soft like Wonder Bread, or hard like the “Jewish jawbreakers” that critics once called the early versions of bagels. A veteran bagelmaker once told the New York Times that “a real bagel fights with you.”

So in honor of Murray Lender, this weekend we are going down to our local family-run bagel joint, which owes Murray a debt because he made the bagel beloved everywhere. We will buy a bag of bagels, find some that are still warm from the oven, and eat them in the car.

Please comment about the bagels in your own lives!