This Secret Bagel-Maker Society Once Ran the Industry in New York City

A variety of bagels
A variety of bagels | © RaviKrishnappa / Pixabay
Elizabeth Nicholas

New York City may have some of the hautest cuisine in the world, but true foodies know that (along with pizza) some of the best food in the city can be found in the humble bagel.

The New York City bagel has an illustrious history. In the earliest days of the delicious bread being made, conditions for bakers were appalling. Bagels were made—primarily by Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side—in underground bakeries with huge vats of boiling water and scorching-hot coal-fired ovens.

New York is famous for excellent bagels, and New Yorkers famously love them

Conditions were deeply unsanitary, with both stray cats and cockroaches running around along with the bakers. Many bakers’ clothing got so filthy that they refused to wear their work clothes on the street and insisted on changing before they went home.

It was into this milieu that the Bagel Bakers Local 338 emerged. The union was founded in the 1930s, and all of the 300 original members were Yiddish speakers whose fathers had been bagel-makers. Joining actually required a family connection, several months of apprenticeship, and the ability to roll 832 bagels per hour—only then were bakers given membership.

A profoundly masculine atmosphere pervaded the premises. The men consumed vast quantities of whiskey, strong coffee, and steak, only spoke Yiddish among themselves and seemed to care little for newcomers, except to inquire after who they were related to.

The Lower East Side, where most bagels were originally made in New York City

Local 338 was not the first bakers union, but it was undoubtedly the savviest. Bagels were becoming extremely popular, especially in the Jewish community, and Local 338 realized the value of their skills. Their dominance crested along with the increasing accolades heaped upon the bagel.

To wit, a 1950 article from Bakers and Confectioners’ Journal said this of the bagel: “Walking into a bagel bakery gives you the feeling you are entering another century. The air is thick with the flavor of the Old World, because modernism has no place in an establishment which produces this ancient Jewish bread.”

Local 338 knew how to play up their congruence with this image and became known as the best bagel-makers in the city. The union drew up contracts with 36 of the largest bakeries in the city and New Jersey, which began to crowd other bagel-makers out.

Because bagel-making was not reliant on machines, the men were able to command high salaries. A Local 338 man told The New York Times in 1960 that he made the equivalent of $65,000 a year in today’s money—plus 24 bagels per day to feed his family.

Lender’s was one of the first companies to rely on machines to make bagels

But the bagel’s resistance to technological advancement could not last forever. In the late 1950s, an inventor in California came up with the idea for a machine that could make serviceable bagels, which may have been less tasty and crusty as the original, but which could be produced four times as cheaply, and bagged and sold to supermarkets to sell directly to consumers.

Local 338 was suddenly facing an existential crisis, and it was one the union was never able to recover from. Although the men encouraged customers not to buy the machine-made bagels (even going so far as to distribute fliers saying “PLEASE DON’T BUY”), the convenience of bagels by the bag at the supermarket was too much for consumers to resist.

New Yorkers wait in line for bagels

And just like that, a once-mighty organization was no more. But their legacy lives on any time you bite into a handmade bagel, which may be more difficult to find, but which, as the men of Local 338 knew, are immeasurably better.

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