Bagel boys, get ready for your close-up.
Writer Matthew Goodman and veteran film director Joan Micklin Silver have begun collaborating on a documentary about the little-known history of the Local 338, the International Bagel Bakers Union of New York. The union, which was founded in 1907 and was one of the city’s most powerful in its heyday, helped propel its 300 mostly Jewish, all-male members from typical immigrant poverty to the comfort of middle class at its height in the 1950s.
“For decades, there wasn’t a bagel in New York that wasn’t a union-made bagel,” said Goodman, known to readers of the Forward as the “Food Maven” columnist and the author of last year’s cookbook “Jewish Food: The World at Table” (Morrow Cookbooks).
The inception of the Local 338 — a secular, socialist and insular organization of mostly Polish immigrants — coincided with the labor movement that swept New York in the early part of the 20th century. Until the 1950s, meetings were held almost entirely in Yiddish, the mamaloshn of most of its members. “You had to either be born into or marry into the union, or have a relative who was a member,” Goodman said. Members enjoyed benefits that many workers today would envy, including life insurance and comprehensive health care.
The filmmakers originally met in November 2005, when Micklin Silver contacted Goodman during research for a documentary she is currently making on the Jewish Catskills. “When Matt mentioned this idea to me I became intrigued with this unique story of American labor,” said Micklin Silver, whose films include “Hester Street” and “Crossing Delancey.”
Food historians, as well as such famous writers and food authorities as Arthur Schwartz and Calvin Trillin, have agreed to appear in the documentary. Award-winning illustrator Ben Katchor will be creating original drawings for the project.
When they begin filming in the fall, Goodman and Micklin Silver plan to shine the spotlight on such union members as Luis Gorbena, a gentile who married into the union, learned Yiddish and opened the first bagel stores in a multitude of cities including Las Vegas and Sacramento, Calif. Another Local 338 member, Abe Moskowitz, was a decorated World War II veteran said to be the inspiration for a character in “The Big Red One,” starring Lee Marvin and Robert Carradine; in the film, he even alludes to opening a bagel bakery in Brooklyn once the war ends.
While they have lined up most of the people they plan to record on film, the filmmakers are still looking to speak to as many members of the union as possible, and they also hope to collect photographs, memorabilia, movies and other mementos associated with Local 338. “We’re hoping that be reading articles like these, people will come forward and identify themselves to us,” Goodman said.
Although the exact origins of the bagel are unknown, its roots — like those of its cousin, the bialy — are thought to be in Poland. Immigrants perpetuated the generations-old tradition of transforming a mere five ingredients — high-protein flour, water, sugar, malt and salt — into authentic, hand-rolled bagels. “These were true artisans who took immense pride in their work,” Goodman said.
The demise of the union coincided with the advent of the automated bagel-making machine, one of thousands of innovations that changed the face of food manufacturing after World War II. In 1955, the Lender family introduced its first packaged supermarket bagels; soon after, the family was approached by Daniel Thompson, whose brand-new apparatus could turn out 2,400 bagels per hour. This, coupled with the introduction of the gas-fired oven a few years later, rendered skilled bagel makers practically obsolete. Although the union successfully went on strike in 1962, by the early 1970s it was folded into the larger, less specialized Local 3, the Bakery and Confectioners Union.
“We began to see the bagel as an immigrant that came to America, struggled and strained, made it, and then ultimately assimilated,” said Micklin Silver, pointing out that today the largest seller of bagels in America today is Dunkin’ Donuts.
But the bagels sold at Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and even at well-respected spots like H&H are a far cry from the smaller, doughier rounds made by the Local 338. When bagel-making machines were introduced, the original recipe for stiff, gluten-heavy dough burned the motors of the automated machines, so water was added. Later machines necessitated the addition of oil and other additives, and malt was often eliminated from the mix.
Today, Goodman says it is near impossible to find old-style, hand-rolled bagels. Diehard bagel mavens often travel to Montreal, where the wood-fired ovens banned Stateside are still used to produce a charred, almost pizza crust.
Still, hope springs eternal. “Calvin Trillin just told me about a place, here in New York on Hudson Street downtown, that I need to check out,” Goodman said. Who knows? Maybe the baker behind the counter has a story to tell.
Adeena Sussman is a food writer and chef living in Manhattan.
Goodman and Micklin Silver are asking anyone with information regarding Local 338 to e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.