Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Bagel Famine of 1951

One of the shocks of my young life was moving to Massachusetts and discovering no bagels. I had grown up outside of New York City, where bagels were a staple, at least among Jewish families. These little breads even had their own trade union,  Bagel Bakers Local 338. According to Wikipedia, the members of this union were all Jewish, and their meetings were held in Yiddish.

Bagels at that time were hand-made but most were not made at home because the process is time consuming; instead, bagels were usually purchased from specialized bakeries or from Jewish delicatessens. For years, every time I left Massachusetts to visit my family, I would return with giant shopping bags filled with bagels, which I froze. I later learned that certain locales, such as Brookline, offered real bagels, but these places were far from where I was living.

I was not the only person perturbed by a lack of bagels. On December 16, 1951, Bagel Bakers Local 338 closed down all but two bagel bakeries during a NewYork labor dispute. What followed was the great bagel famine of 1951, dubbed that by no other than the New York Times. "Bagel Famine Threatens the City" read the headline. Not only were Jewish diners inconvenienced by this strike, but so were the delicatessens that supplied the lox that traditionally were served on bagels, as well as the truckers who delivered these foods.

The strike was settled rather quickly, but within two decades, the union lost its clout because of technology. A family named Lender began using machines to make bagels.  The good news was that bagels went mainstream and even started selling throughout Massachusetts; the bad news was that the bagels didn't really taste like the chewy old homemade ones.

History repeats itself, though, and today we are back to having specialized bakers create handmade bagels for those who crave them. Luckily, I have a friend who lives near one such bakery, and he knows of my fondness for this food. Occasionally I will arrive home to find a bag of bagels hanging from my doorbell (a real bell) or sitting on my porch. No note is needed, because I know only one person who delivers this special gift to my house, and luckily, the man knows his bagels.

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