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Why have bagels become so big and bready?

Since Eastern European immigrants brought bagels to the

Since Eastern European immigrants brought bagels to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, they have become about 4 ounces bigger and evolved to include a range of flavors. Credit: Newsday/Neville Harvey

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series in which Newsday attempts to answer questions from Long Islanders about life on the Island. If there’s a question you want us to answer, send it to us here.

Over the last 60 years, the quintessential New York breakfast roll evolved from a small “cement doughnut” to a pillowy roll with any number of toppings, flavors and colors.

Jennifer Berg, director of New York University’s food studies graduate program, estimated that bagels have puffed up from roughly 2 ounces to 6 in that time, in part by natural evolution and in part by social forces.

Up until the 1960s, bagels were about the size of what today’s Long Islanders would probably call a mini-bagel. They weren’t as easy to bite into, either.

“The joke about the bagel used to be that it was the cement doughnut,” said Maria Balinska, author of the 2008 book “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread.”

Traditionally, bagels required a lengthy process of hand-rolling, boiling and then baking the dough, resulting in a signature chewy texture and shine. It was rare to see flavors outside of plain, sesame or poppy seed.

Jewish bakers championed this Eastern European method for decades, even forming a union  — the Bagel Bakers Local 338 — in the early 1900s that required members to adhere to its traditional standards, according to Berg. 

But the bagel — and the fiercely guarded methods that produced them — was no match for the sweeping change of the 1960s and later decades, when mass production and growing suburban demand would alter food culture. 

A couple of innovations contributed to the changing bagel. In 1963, a California man named Daniel Thompson invented a “bagel machine” that could mass-shape bagels for the first time, according to Thompson’s 2015 obituary in the Los Angeles Times. In the 1980s, the rotating rack oven was introduced, and bagel mass production replaced the boiling process with a steaming one, creating bagels that were faster to make but also softer and longer lasting. 

During these decades, other cultural factors were shaping food culture, too. In the mid-20th century, bagel stores began to spread across Long Island as more families left New York City for the suburbs.

“In that process, they sort of abandon most of the cultural markers of what it’s like to be a second-generation immigrant family,” Berg said. “We develop a culture in suburbia that bigger is better. There’s status and value in having something that is oversize.”

Balinska said American households began to value quick, filling “convenience foods” like sandwiches after the 1960s. The pretzel-like bagels of the past were too small, too chewy and didn’t last very long to use them for sandwiches.

From there, bagels boomed. There were packaged and frozen varieties in supermarkets. By the late 1980s, bagel stores were all over Long Island.

Wally’s Bagels in North Babylon opened in 1991. Its bakers have always used a rack oven versus the traditional method, said Jennifer Bergin, shop manager and daughter of Wally’s founder. She said Wally’s stands out to its customers for its oversized, overstuffed creations.

Bergin, 27, said the shop has two stovetops and prepares the fixings for hundreds of bagel sandwiches a day. They also jumped on the rainbow bagel trend of a few years ago, adding their own twist with funfetti cream cheese.

“What we do is becoming more popular, the bigger the bagel, the crazier type of bagel with the crazier stuff on it,” Bergin said. “People want three meats, three eggs and potatoes on a sandwich.”

The explosion of rainbow bagels and the like are a far cry from where bagels started — but the trend may be moving in favor of the bagel purists.

Both Berg and Balinska said they’ve noticed some bakers seeking a return to the old methods. A handful of traditionalists still remain in New York City and a new crop of artisan bagel bakers have joined them, like Sadelle’s in SoHo and Little Italy’s Baz Bagels. 

“I think we’re in a new bagel renaissance,” Berg said.

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