Food & Drink: If you can't cook, but want to make a fortune, read on: First it was burgers, then pizza, baked potatoes and croissants. Now bagels are tipped to sweep the fast-food world. Reggie Nadelson brings the news from New York

ONCE, in New York City, the only bakers who could bake a bagel were the bagel bakers of Bagel Bakers Local 338. Admission to this union was limited to sons of the members: anyone who baked a non-union bagel could get his legs broken.

Not any more. In the annals of the fast-food franchise, it is the hour of the bagel. Bagelism is spreading. You think it's impossible? You think there is nothing less universal, less exportable than this hard chewy thing beloved by New York Jews? Well that's why you're not Ray Kroc, the man who invented McDonald's.

Think about it. Who could have predicted that ice-cream made in New Jersey with a fake scando name would have ended up a global business called Haagen-Dazs? Which brain of Britain in Coronation year would have predicted this sovereign isle covered in Pizza Huts?

And what French baker foresaw the rise of the croissant into a sandwich, bloated and soggy, stuffed with spinach and cheese and sold at Euston station?

Across America, bagel chains sprout in California.

You can get bagels baked in Iowa, Kansas, probably Tunbridge Wells.

In March, a bagel bakery opened in Moscow.

Suddenly they are revealed as healthful - low fat, high carbs. Yet, despite their spread from coast to coast, there is in nature no such thing as a McBagel.

According to Leo Rosten, America's premier commentator on subjects of Jewish American folklore, the bagel ('rhymes with Mabel') is 'a shiny roll, hard, crusty and glazed on the outside and chewy in the centre, shaped like a tiny life preserver; it is sometimes referred to as a 'doughnut in rigor mortis.'

The quiddity of a bagel is its texture. Made of unbleached high gluten flour, malt, sugar, salt and yeast, a bagel is boiled then baked and it's the boiling that makes the bagel.

Before the rise of the bagel-making machine, the Kettlemen around New York City had a status not dissimilar to that of the salters at the Caspian Sea who determine the quality of caviar by the quantity of salt put in the sturgeon roe.

Purists feel it is New York water, the world's best, that makes the difference.

The bagel is no neophyte. The bagel is pretty old.

According to Mr Rosten, the first mention of it appears in 1610 in the Jewish Community Regulations of Cracow, where it was stated that a ration of bagel should be given to pregnant women.

On the other hand, according to Marilyn and Tom Bagel (their real name), authors of the Bagel Bible, the bagel was invented by a Jewish baker in Vienna in 1683. By way of thanks to the King of Poland for saving the city from Turkish invaders, a bread roll was made in the shape of a riding stirrup (bugel) to honour the king's passion.

And then, with the immigrants of the early 1900s, the bagel arrived in America. For decades it remained a controlled substance, hand-made, labour-intensive.

In the Sixties, however, the Thompson Bagel Baking Machine - invented by a Canadian - industrialised the bagel. It prospered, although there was still confusion in the boondocks. For instance, according to the New York Times, when Michael Loss opened a bagel shop in Atlanta in 1974 'people would come by to talk about dogs. They thought we were opening a beagle kennel'.

Inherent in mass production were heresies of taste and texture: some bakers gave up boiling and steamed their bagels. In California, the softer bagel reached its nadir: there, like an aged bodybuilder, it grew fatter.

It was purveyed at shops called Los Bagels. Traditionally, a bagel was eaten with a 'shmear' (a thick slick of cream cheese) or with lox (smoked salmon) and cream cheese and maybe a slice of raw onion; now, easier to slice, it was sold as a sandwich with alfalfa sprouts. Or ham. There were Chicken Fried Bagels. Bagels Tartare. Taco Bagels.

Historically, the bagel has come in such flavours as sesame, poppy seed and onion. With the New Age came carrot bagels, Jalapeno bagels, English muffin flavour bagels. At Dizzy Izzys in New York City there are blueberry bagels.

Those who analyse food trends see the bagel as a fast-food winner because it resembles a doughnut with the bad stuff taken out. George Rosenbaum, one such analyst, was quoted as saying recently: 'If you can become a doughnut proxy in the fast-food market, you are no longer an ethnic food.'

Yeah, but you are also no longer a bagel.

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