March 22 - Consider the bagel. At one time, a bagel was a delightful treat consisting of hand-rolled dough that had been boiled, then baked until the crust had a glossy sheen. These bygone bagels were modestly apportioned, not the monster trucks—the Winnebagels—you see plying America's culinary roadways today. They were not offered in the same flavor configurations as muffins (oat bran, blueberry, apple-honey). The noble, pristine bagel had a humble, monk-like approach that aspired to little, yet achieved so much.
These are trying times for lovers of real bagels. If I were president, I would go before Congress and ruefully declare, "The state of the American bagel is not sound."
And it's not going to get better any time soon. The two primary forces that are driving America to culinary ruin—homogenized corporate control and the Atkins diet—are about to rain yet another undeserved indignity down on the poor, beleaguered bagel: the low-carb bagel.
Take the New World Restaurant Group, for example. This company, which owns the Einstein Bros. and Noah's New York Bagel (sic!) chains, is rolling out a new "9 Grain Bagel" that they say will have a mere 18 grams of carbohydrates compared to the 75 grams in the chain's regular bagel. It's all part of New World's effort to remain, according to a company statement, a leader "in the quick casual sandwich industry" (and you thought all those jobs had been outsourced to India).
Now, on the face of this, of course, there's nothing wrong with making a bagel healthier (although one could argue that if bagels merely returned to their original, pre-steroid size, the carbs could be cut without having to invent a bogus bagel).
We all know how quickly the Atkins low-carb diet has infiltrated our consciousness. According to a survey by Opinion Dynamics (motto: "A national leader in market research, public opinion polling and consulting"), 24 million Americans are on a low-carb diet and nearly 45 million more are about to go on it. With numbers like that, the implications are enormous, especially for restaurants.
"The popularity of the low-carb diet has led to substantial shifts in the consumption of a wide variety of foods," said Lawrence Shiman of Opinion Dynamics. "Our research shows this is truly a revolution, not a passing fad, and will dramatically impact not only eating habits but also how the food service industry approaches the nation's 220 million adult consumers. For example, our research has found that the recent significant decrease in orange juice consumption may be almost entirely attributable to greater adoption of low-carb diets. It's clear that those who ignore or downplay the low-carb revolution do so at their own peril." (Cue thunder-and-lightning effect.)
I'm quoting Shiman not merely to bore you to death, but
because I like to quote "experts" who make absurd, broad-sweeping
generalizations that will sound absolutely ridiculous in 50 years.
At least Shiman did accurately explain the motivation behind New World's de-carbification of its regular bagel. But I was still dubious. How dare New World tinker with a bagel of such stunning mediocrity, a bland mound of mushy baked dough that resembles a bagel as much as I resemble stage actor John Malkovich (c'mon, I'm better looking then him, right?). Clearly, it was time for another of my invaluable fact-finding missions.
Before I could even be offended by the New World bagel, I was offended by the lackluster service. As so often happens at chain stores, the staff acted as if my request for a few bagels was tantamount to me asking them to run a marathon with leg weights. They begrudgingly suspended their conversations and eventually got around to putting six bagels in a bag. I had to get my own tub of cream cheese.
The cashier informed me that the six bagels and the six-ounce container of "double-whipped" cream cheese constituted something called "The Half-Dozen Deal." Some deal. Look, I know I live in New York City, where a studio apartment can cost $800,000, but how is six bagels and a container of creamed air a "deal" at $5.99? Even if I could do the math, I'd find that expensive.
My experience at the Einstein Bros. store reminded me of something a New World exec told me (and when I say "told me," I mean "sent me in a very canned statement").
"Everything at Einstein Bros and Noah's today is about meeting our customers' lifestyle choices," said Joanne Sheean, New World senior vice president of marketing. I don't know about you, but the one lifestyle choice I place above all others is being served by competent, friendly people. You know, the people in Bangalore to whom we're outsourcing all our service jobs because we're all too ornery.
Once back in the friendly confines of a New York City street, I took the still-fresh bagels to the office of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a true connoisseur of the great New York bagel. You know this is a man who appreciates the finer things in life: not only does he have a passion for food (and the gut to prove it), but the cross-trainer exercise machine in his office serves as the coat rack.
First, he tried the regular Einstein Bros. bagel. "It's basically fresh bread with a hole in it," he said. "The crust is non-existent. It's airy. If you're hungry, it will work. But it's the ultimate McDonald's-style bagel for the McDonald's culture."
Then, he took a bite of the Low-Carb Bagel: "If you're starving this will work," he said. "It's absolutely disgusting. The first bite isn't half bad, but the more you chew, the more it tastes like soggy paper. Taste it. Soggy paper."
Just then, Markowitz's secretary—a native of Kansas—walked in, took a bite of both bagels, and pronounced them "delicious." Such heresy is grounds for immediate firing in an office like Markowitz's, but she must be a good secretary.
"There's a culture war going on in this country and the forces of mass homogenization, white bread modernity are winning," he concluded. "If diet is your concern, you'd be better off finding a really good New York bagel and eating half of it."
Eating half of something? What is he, un-American?
Gersh Kuntzman is also Brooklyn bureau chief for The New York Post. His website is at http://www.gersh.tv