Story: My Teen Years in Bagel Making

By Xah Lee. Date:

When i was a teen, i worked as a bagel maker for 3 years. Roll the dough into torus shape, and bake them. All manual work. At the time, ~1985, there's also machine rolled and machine baked. But it is said they don't taste as great. (i never verified it myself though)

bagel oven
Bagel oven. [image source]

Here's what we do to make bagels.

You put 40kg bag of flour, 2 pails of water, few dozens eggs, sugar, honey, malt, into a dough mixer. After 40 min, take it out. (note: 40kg and 2 pails of water = very heavy)

The making takes 2 guys. One to roll the dough, one to bake. Sometimes 2 dough-rollers, because baking goes faster, when the shop is busy and boss demands greater output.

Here's what the dough-roller do: Cut dough with knife into one slab, then slice a thin strip out, then grab the strip, wrap around your palm, pull to cut the dough, and roll and press on the table to seal the ends into a torus. Repeat to make another. After making 40 of them, drop them in a boiling pot. After boiled for ~2 min, the baker take them out, align them on 2 long wooden boards and the boards into a wide, door-less, fire brick oven. After a min, you use a long wooden board shaped liked a oar to flip a array of bagels in the oven, and meanwhile also position them into the next row farther from the fire. Do this for all rows. (there are about 6 or 8 rows at a time in the oven). For the last row, you use the oar to “scoop” them onto the oar, move out of the oven, then you kinda tilt the board like a kung-fu move so all the bagels fly neatly into air and land on a big wooden trough.

All this is manual work but done in kinda conveyor-belt fashion. 40 bagels out every 2 to 3 minutes.

Dough-rolling is very labor intensive. Remember, when the pace is fast, you have to roll 40 bagels per 1 min. This is why sometimes there are 2 rollers, or the baker helps out.

The baker's job is less physically intensive, but takes more skill, due to the use of oar to manipulate them and mental timing.

It was back-breaking labor. I did it for 8 hours a day for ~3 years. Basically minimum wage. My bosses (often Jewish) are nothing you'd call kind. The other dough-rollers and bakers staff i worked with are pretty much uneducated. Blacks, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Iranian… i don't recall if some are illegal immigrants. (i have working paper back then) The power-relation among us are like primitives. (if you are a office worker, you know how sometimes there's office politics among you and coworkers. At worst, it escalates to manager. In a sweat shop, the power struggle are verbal threats, sometimes physical fight, etc. (sometimes you can get a feel of it in movies, like inmates in prison. For lack of better description, you do what you can to survive.)) It was in Montreal.

Dough-rolling of making bagels.
“The Real Bagel of Montreal by Ed Antonio”. Video of making bagels.
“St. Viateur Bagel Shop, Montreal”

See also Wikipedia Montreal-style bagel. The companies i worked for are Fairmount Bagel and “R.E.A.L Bagel” in Montreal. It seems they are still in business. Google will find it.

PS The best way to eat it, is of course hot out of the oven. If already cold, then with cream cheese and salmon!