A snack story with holes in it
Investigating the roots of everything bagels and their cultural moment
Hello, Snackers. Everyone loves bagels and everyone loves claiming a piece of bagel lore.
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I’m pretty good at focusing on tasks, especially when I have a snack to keep me company. The problem is that sometimes the snacks themselves can be a distraction.
The other Friday night, we ordered dinner from my kids’ favorite pizzeria. One pizza for the kids, one for the parents, and, as an appetizer, a Bavarian pretzel so large that an especially fashionable corgi could wear it as a collar. It came sprinkled with everything bagel seasoning and a side of beer cheese. Because of the way my brain works, I immediately began wondering where and when and how all these things were first created. Who put beer and cheese together? Who came up with the “everything” label for that delicious combination of sesame seeds and poppy seeds, onion, and, well, everything else?
Once the kids were all settled in with their slices and Wreck-It Ralph, I casually Googled “origin of everything bagels.” In a matter of moments, I was far, far down a rabbit hole—one that, it turns out, feels ready its own Hollywood treatment.
* * *
When you go looking for the history of everything bagels, you quickly come across a Long Island resident named David Gussin, who has been telling people for decades that he’s the guy who invented this particular delicacy.
When Gussin was fifteen, he took a part-time job at a takeout place in Howard Beach run by a guy named Charlie. It was a simpler time for bagels: you had plain, poppy, sesame, onion, salt, garlic, and—on the exotic end—cinnamon raisin. One of Gussin’s duties at closing time was to sweep up the burnt seeds that had fallen off in the oven during the day. Gussin developed a taste for them, and one afternoon—he guesses around 1980—“instead of throwing them out, like I always did, I swept them into a bin and said, ‘Charlie, let’s make some with these!’ ”
In the years after that piece ran, other claimants stepped forward. This includes:
writer Seth Godin (whose proclamation was clearly tongue-in-cheek)
a marketer named Brandon Steiner, whose blog post on the topic comes with a pop-up message pitching an e-book titled The 22 Steps to Master Negotiation, which does not exactly give the feeling that this is a trustworthy person who never exaggerates for the purposes of publicity
National Public Radio covered the dispute in 2008, calling it, inevitably, a “food fight.” Gussin stood by his story: “That bagel wasn't around the day before I created it.”
But the only evidence offered by any of these men is a mere memory. There are no menus, no news clippings, no verifications by anyone else who was there at the time. It’s purely “believe me, okay?”
So I did my own digging, poking around all manner of newspaper archives. And I found some answers that no one else seems to have uncovered before.
* * *
Before that reveal, it’s worth considering what else was happening in the world of bagels around the same time.
If you want the food’s whole history, I recommend Maria Balinska’s 2008 book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread or Ari Weinzweig’s 2009 explainer in The Atlantic. Short version: bagels may have originated in 14th-century Poland as a variation of German pretzels (making modern “everything bagel pretzels” an even more intriguing concept), or perhaps they began as a Austrian baker’s tribute to the king of Poland in 1693. It’s not clear who actually gets the credit, Weinzweig writes, but the upshot is that bagels grew popular in Poland at a time when the antisemitism rulers banned Jews from selling baked bread products—but, because bagels are boiled before they’re baked, they didn’t violate this law.
When immigrants—especially Jewish immigrants—from Poland and nearby areas started heading to the United States, they brought along bagels, where the food quickly developed an association with Jewish identity. Here’s Weinzweig again:
Over the course of the 20th century, bagels followed the pattern of so many other ethnic foods still superficially “Jewish” — they got softer and sweeter as they successfully moved out of New York's Lower East Side into the middle of the country and the mass market.
Because the bagel-baking process traditionally involved a wood-fired oven and was fairly labor-intensive, the industry still relied on skilled human labor decades after other bakeries had begun to take a larger, industrialized, machine-driven approach. In New York, far and away the bagel capital of the United States, most bagel makers were members of a strong union, which went on strike several times in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as mechanization slowly entered the industry. (That particular episode of labor history is fascinating and well-covered in this Gastro Obscura article, as well as Balinska’s book—when I said there’s a story here ready for the Hollywood treatment, this particular drama is part of what I had in mind.) The labor disputes spilled over into the 1970s, with a major decision against union employees by the National Labor Relations Board in 1976.
Beyond the specific labor matters, the 1960s had seen the introduction of preservatives, allowing for longer shelf life and more extensive shipping, and rotating ovens, which were far easier to move and install than the traditional brick ovens, making it much easier for bakers to set up retail storefronts. Any one of these shifts in production methods and business operations would have been disruptive enough; collectively, they marked a seismic shift in the bagel industry and, ultimately, the geographic and cultural spread of bagels around the USA.
“The humble bagel, long regarded as a Jewish baking tidbit, is breaking its ethnic bonds just as pizza has,” syndicated columnist Allen Garvin wrote in 1966. “Last year Americans spent more than $16 million for 240 million bagels. They’re now sold in all 50 states.”
* * *
It’s fascinating to look through newspaper and magazine stories from this era and see how the broad American public viewed bagels. The data points are all over the place.
On the one hand, you have things like this incredible piece from The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1969:
“What are bagels?” the reporter asked a selection of people out and about in downtown Cincinnati. One thought she was talking about the Beatles; others thought they were a dog (that would be a beagle, of course), the local football team (the Bengals), or the crunchy corn snack (Bugles). (To her credit, the reporter also talked to plenty of people entirely familiar with bagels, and the overall tone is one of curiosity and delight, not exoticism or worse.)
It’s also easy to find, all over the USA, casual mentions of bagels as just normal things, unknown or in need of any description. This includes, for example, a piece from 1962 by someone from the Auburn University Extension Service extolling the virtues of different breads for sandwiches, with bagels dropped into a list that includes pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, and “thick crusted French, onion-topped rolls.” If that sounds like a boring example, well, that’s my point. They were known and mundane in plenty of places, not just New York or Jewish delis.
Some of the news coverage managed to play both angles at the same time, like this Associated Press from 1973:
Here we have an article focusing on the effects of wheat prices on bagel costs, and a headline centering bagels as a notable economic indicator. But also: “A bagel is a glazed, hard doughnut-shaped roll made of flour and water.” I have some questions, beginning with (but not limited to) the word “glazed.”
Meanwhile, throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, national news outlets sometimes used bagels as cultural markers, the phrasing often bordering on xenophobic if not outright antisemitic—a LIFE story about Tony Curtis quoted one Hollywood insider saying his voice was like “an immigrant taxi driver with a mouthful of hot bagel,” and I assure you there are many much worse examples.
* * *
With broader cultural reach comes, inevitably, greater variation—more people create more riffs on the original. Lender’s bagels started in 1927, and forty years later, their signature product was popular enough that the company decided to make a green shamrock version for St. Patrick’s Day, because why not. I so wish these photos were in color:
Lender’s took off as a nationwide brand in the early 1970s, advertising their frozen bagels as “the Jewish English muffin.” Sometime around then, blueberry bagels entered the market—the earliest mention I can find is a passing reference to them in The Wisconsin State Journal in 1974. Clearly, both bakers and consumers were starting to look at bagels in a new way, including a search for different flavors.
This is the period and context in which the everything bagel was born.
* * *
These particular toppings ended up in bagel shops, and eventually on the everything bagel because the bagel’s ancestor had used those toppings for thousands of years. They matured and migrated with the bagel.
The real question at hand, then, is not who first put all those things onto one bagel but who gave it the name—it’s not about the concept but the brand.
To recap, a guy named David Gussin claims that it was his idea in 1980, when he was working in a bagel shop at the age of 15. No one has ever offered tangible evidence proving or disputing this, so his word has stood as the unofficial official record.
The newspaper archives, however, offer some clarity. Here’s the very first mention I was able to find of the term “everything bagel” to describe this specific food:
It’s possible that Gussin simply got his dates wrong, but that seems unlikely. It’s also possible that this is an example of multiple people having the same idea independently but, honestly, that also seems unlikely. As it happens, Bagel Master is still open, in the same location in Syosset, New York, about 29 miles from Howard Beach, where Gussin worked in that bagel shop in 1980. Bagel Master’s website says nothing about inventing the everything bagel, and when you give a close reading to that 1977 piece, it sure sounds like the everything bagel is not widespread but also not something that is entirely brand-new, or billed as such by Bagel Master.
All of which is to say that the everything bagel probably dates to 1976, if not earlier, and we don’t know who gave it that name. Like so, so many food origin stories—a topic we’ve discussed on Snack Stack once or twice—the oft-cited tale makes for compelling mythology, but some basic fact-checking shows it to be false.
In the end, what’s most interesting to me, personally, is not the individual who gave us this term for this food but the broader societal moment that led to it. The everything bagel isn’t about a specific person but an intriguing era when bagels were spreading across the USA, due to all those shifts in culture, technology, and labor—in those tiny savory specks is a fittingly diverse assortment of flavors of history.
We’ll give Gussin the last word. “The last thing I want is a brouhaha over the ‘everything’ bagel,” he told National Public Radio. “It brings smiles to people's faces. It doesn't deserve controversy. It's a nice thing.”
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