Volume 3, Issue 73: Poor Places

"Someone ties a bow in my backyard to show me love."

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In 1987, I met Murray Lender, shook the man’s hand, told him he was the most famous person I’d ever met, could not believe he was really standing there before me.

Murray Lender’s father had owned the Connecticut bagel shop “Lender’s Bagels” for decades, but when Murray took over, he had his eyes on a prizer larger than just the local bakery. Murray, along with his brother, decided to expand and franchise Lender’s Bagels, attempting to make the doughy pastry go national. The trick was to freeze the bagel and sell it to supermarkets everywhere. Murray, who is also credited with coming up with the idea pre-slicing bagels, was for many years the public face of the bagel, even appearing in a series of national advertisements to support Lender’s Bagels, and the bagel in general.

Lender’s vision was, as he put it, was “to really get [the bagel] out of the ethnic marketplace.” This did not make him popular to bagel aficionados—“Is A Bagel Still A Bagel in Maui?” asked The New York Times in 1997—but it did make Lender’s Bagels a massive company and the central brand for bagels globally for most of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Murray’s biggest move came in 1986, when he and his family decided to sell Lender’s Bagels to Kraft Foods for $140 million while keeping Murray as the public face of the company. Key to the purchase was the creation of a Lender’s-specific bagel factory that could produce as many as two million bagels a day. Kraft had an old plant, in a little burgh that the Times would, in Lender’s obituary, call a “prairie town,” which would serve this purpose just fine. That town was Mattoon, Illinois, my hometown, my father’s hometown, his father’s hometown, his father’s hometown. I was 10 years old.

To help promote this new bagel plant and this new Kraft acquisition, and to further build on Murray’s desire to get that bagel out of the “ethnic marketplace,” Lender’s, Kraft and local officials decided they would declare a national bagel holiday. They decreed July 26 National Bagelfest Day and launched an annual festival, Bagelfest, to take place in that prairie town. The event included a Bagel Baby contest, a Bagel Bow Wow dog show, and a Little Miss Bagelfest pageant. Most important, it featured an appearance from Murray Lender himself, the most famous person to step foot in Mattoon since Ulysses S. Grant spent a weekend recruiting soldiers for the Union Army there in the spring of 1861. That was where I shook Murray Lender’s hand. He was also certainly the first Jewish person I’d ever met, not that I knew what that meant in 1986. I just knew him as the TV man who was making my town famous.

Bagelfest became the biggest Mattoon event, every year. (In college, I made sure to come back for it each July.) My father and I, once for the Bagel Buggy Contest, built a racer made out of an inner tube painted like a bagel mounted on a miniature satellite dish, which we bolted on an old car jack and pushed down Charleston Avenue. (We still lost to a kid who just put a bagel on each of his bike’s handlebars.) Mom and I did the Ride Around Mattoon For A Bagel 25-mile road bike race. I took our beloved dog Daisy to the Bagel Bow Wow show and then sneaked onto the roof of the movie theater I worked at so that Daisy and I could get on the local news, which was in town to cover a labor lockout with the power company that had put my dad on the picket lines all summer, the summer before I went to college, a summer when I didn’t know if, come September, I’d be able to afford to go to Champaign after all. Daisy wore a bagel hat and a sign around her neck that said, “Don’t Treat Electrical Workers Like Dogs.” I even was interviewed for WCIA Channel 3 at that Bagelfest, and wow what I wouldn’t give for that video today.

Bagelfest was the most reliable tradition we had in Mattoon, the one weekend a year it felt like anybody had the slightest idea where our little town even was. We knew it was more than a little silly that This Prairie Town could lay claim to being The Bagel Capital Of The World, as Murray breathlessly proclaimed it every year. (I didn’t know a single person who ate Lender’s Bagels, or bagels, or anything other than bacon or Fruit Loops.) But it was a vital business, a major employer in our town; many of my friends and classmates had food on the table because of Lender’s Bagels. We were grateful, appreciative. And we liked it. It was ours. I went on a date with a past Little Miss Bagelfest once. I was proud of myself. I felt like I knew a celebrity.

But Murray was the real celebrity. I nervously told him how cool it was to meet him. He smiled and said thank you and then handed me a bagel. “I think our bagel is the best bagel in America,” Murray Lender once said. “But on the other hand, I’ve never eaten a bad bagel.”

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Bagelfest is the pivotal event in my 2005 young adult novel Catch, which takes place in Mattoon, and it is portrayed the way I remember it as a kid: As a goofy, sincere, cheerful small-town festival where everyone knows one another and everyone essentially means well. When I returned to Bagelfest to promote Catch as an adult, though, it was clear it had evolved, like the town itself, into something much dingier. It was closer to a cheap traveling carnival by then, more like a fading county fair than a celebration, just an excuse for people from surrounding rural counties to drink and act rowdy in public. (The musical act that year was .38 Special, which sounded about right. It’s worth noting that Bagelfest has had some success in predicting up-and-coming country music acts in the years since then, including Luke Bryan in 2006 and The Zac Brown Band in 2009.) The 2005 festival was poorly attended and plagued by thunderstorms all weekend; I don’t think I saw a single person I knew. The festival wasn’t even held downtown anymore; all the bars and local businesses had long shut down as Wal-Mart and other national chains set up shop out by the interstate, cutting off the lifeblood of the town I loved, not to mention the steady employment of the people who built lives there. I’ve always considered that weekend my unofficial breakup with my obsession with my hometown. I would have to remember the way it was, not what it had become. My parents moved away from Mattoon about five years ago, cutting off the primary reason I went home in the first place. I haven’t thought about going to Bagelfest in years.

Last year, in 2020, Bagelfest, for the first time, was canceled, because of the pandemic. It almost felt for the best. Right before the pandemic happened, Conagra Brands, which had owned the Lender’s Bagels brand (which had long since been stripped off by Kraft) for two years, sold it to Bimbo Bakeries USA, a company located in Mexico City. The bagel plant still existed, but at a dramatically slashed capacity. What was once the largest employer in town now barely registered. This was also when Mattoon was amidst a fierce, increasingly ugly fight about Illinois Gov. Pritzker’s attempts to slow the spread of Covid-19 and how “that Chicago prick” (as he was invariably known) conflicted with the needs of small rural businesses, an angry escalation of a never-ending Chicago/downstate culture war that has been going on my entire life. It wasn’t the right time for a celebration, if that’s even what Bagelfest was anymore.

But this week, this week Bagelfest has returned. And I’ll be damned if my little town isn’t getting back in the spirit of the thing. Bimbo Bakeries has actually been going to local businesses to give out free bagels for bagel-themed entrees, including an Angelo’s Pizza pepperoni bagel and Juanito’s Mexican Cantina offering Bagel Molletes sandwiches, which are, uh, bagels topped with refried beans, chorizos and Mexican cheeses. Little Miss Bagelfest is back, as is the Bagel Bow Wow show. Last night, Ricky Skaggs played the main stage; tonight it is Resurrection, the Journey tribute band. The Mattoon Pride Softball Tournament has been taking place all weekend. Right now, as I type to you, the Bagelfest parade is marching through downtown Mattoon. Somewhere on Charleston Avenue, there’s a kid getting pegged in the head with a frozen bagel.

I was in Mattoon last in early 2020, and I was inspired by efforts from people, many of whom I went to high school with, who remember what the town once was and believe it could be again, to restore Mattoon to the goofy, sincere, hopeful place of our memories. They’re working hard to revive the forgotten downtown Mattoon, including a restoration of the old Time Theater, the movie theater that, every time I close my eyes when I go to the movies today, I still imagine I’m in. They didn’t leave and then cluck their tongues when they returned, tsk tsk, what happened to this place. They stayed, and worked to improve it: To make it what it could someday be. They have a long way to go. Coles County is one of those rural counties where Covid-19 cases are rising rapidly. The biggest factory in town closed a year-and-a-half ago. When I was there last year, the only business downtown that was open past 7 p.m. is a dark, windowless bar for video poker. I worry about my town.

But I have followed Bagelfest with an interest bordering on obsession this year. It does feel almost hopeful again. Maybe that’s just what I want to see. But come on, who among us can really be immune to the charms of this:

It makes no sense for Mattoon to be the Bagel Capital of the World. Bagelfest is a relic of a long-lost time, when a Connecticut bagel magnate could come to a tiny rural Central Illinois town as part of a plan to turn bagels into America’s breakfast food and shake the hands of 11-year-old kids just wanting a brief glimpse of a TV person. But it doesn’t matter what it once was. It matters that it’s still going, that people are gathering again, that we’ve got something to hang on to. It doesn’t matter what we used to do, who we used to be. What matters is what we do with what we have, now. Mattoon is so different than it was when Bagelfest started back in 1986. But it’s still going, nevertheless. People still want to believe. People still want to feel connected. People still want to ride around Mattoon for a bagel. Bagelfest or bust, people. Bagelfest or bust.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. Shohei Ohtani Is Impossible, New York. Look at me, writing about Ohtani, so original.

  2. There Is No Reason American Children Should Not Be Back in Classes This Fall, Medium. Me taking the David Wallace-Wells case and running with it.

  3. This Week in Genre History: The Blair Witch Project, SYFY Wire. Still an incredible movie experience. Saw this at the old Tivoli in St. Louis.

  4. Five Simple Rules For Going Back to Restaurants, Medium. Be good to your people, people.

  5. Internet Nostalgia: The Manti Te’o Story, Medium. Ah, memories.

  6. Big Players Coming Back From Injury, MLB.com. Still holding out hope for Trout and the Angels.

  7. Good Thing Americans Don’t Care About Their National Teams Like England Does, GQ Magazine. Otherwise, boy, we’d be awfully worried about the Olympic men’s basketball team.

  8. The Thirty: Big Predictions For Every Team, MLB.com. A few of these piled up this week.

  9. Bonus Thirty: Second-Half Goals For Every Team, MLB.com. You gotta have goals.

  10. Second Bonus Thirty: The Best Drafted Player Currently on Every Team, MLB.com. You know, because there was a draft this week.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, no show this week while Grierson’s in Cannes.

Seeing Red, Bernie and I look at the second half.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week, going weekly next month.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“The Kids Were Safe the Whole Time,” David Wallace-Wells, New York. Pretty much sums it up.

Also, it’s rather depressing to be reading Ed Yong stories like this again.

BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ

“The Wishbones,” Tom Perrotta. New newsletter rubric! Just a way to point you toward some books that I love, in case you haven’t read them. Why not?

Perrotta is obviously a huge star now—much bigger than when he wrote the foreword for Life As A Loser, that’s for sure—but this was his first novel, and I still might love it the most. It’s funny and wistful and all about that moment when you realize, no matter how hard you might try, eventually you do have to grow up. This probably isn’t his best novel, but it’s still my favorite.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Yesssss. I am caught up! I have answered all letters, and all I’m waiting on now is a new batch of bookplates to send out to the last 40 or so people who pre-ordered. So give me more work to do! Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“World Class Fad,” Paul Westerberg. This song probably wasn’t really about Kurt Cobain—Westerberg famously disliked Cobain, for reasons that still aren’t clear more than 30 years later—but even if it was, this song would still be fantastic. It’s better if it’s not about Cobain, actually, because I’m pretty sure it’s still applicable today in all sorts of ways. A good angry pop song never hurt anybody.

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section. Someone this week called this “a playlist for getting shit done,” and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better compliment.

Though this insanity wasn’t bad either:

Have a great weekend, all.

Best,
Will