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Debra Goldman's Consumer Republic

  • October 16, 2000, 12:00 AM EDT
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I should have heeded the teaser on The Wall Street Journal article that warned its contents would raise the blood pressure of the bagel purist.

Ever since McDonald's starting serving bagel breakfasts, I felt the bagel, bread of my forefathers, could descend no further into deracinated white-breadhood. How wrong I was.

Not even bagels at Dunkin' Donuts could prepare me for Pillsbury's Toaster Bagel Shoppe: frozen dough, shaped in a toaster-friendly rectangle, ready-filled with cream cheese and jelly.

We bagel purists are left to curse the day this relic of the shtetl became the most successful and widely adopted ethnic food since pizza first arrived from Naples.

The bagel has put the fear of God into cereal manufacturers, which have watched as Americans defect to a breakfast food they can eat while talking on their cell phones during their morning commute.

Bagels have transformed the design of toasters, which now regularly come with extra-wide slots, the better to accommodate the Brobdingnagian halves of the typically supersized American bagel.

At the risk of being one of those tiresome food snobs, I must point out that the millions who regularly order a toasted bagel with their scrambled eggs and bacon have never eaten a bagel. And they probably would not like it if they did.

A real bagel is simply too demanding to make and to consume.

It is first boiled, then baked to create a hard, tooth-resistant crust. One doesn't so much bite into a bagel as tear it apart. It does not turn to gelatinous goo immediately upon contact with saliva. The real thing retains its chewy texture, challenging the jaw muscles down to the last bite. Like matzoh, it is a bread of affliction—in this case, however, the affliction is the labor of eating one.

In short, never has there been a bakery good less likely to become a mass American food than the bagel. Indeed, the bagel as my father knew it has never become one.

The bread that goes by its name in thousands of diners, coffee shops, fast-food joints and bagel chains—a circle of Wonder bread that yields to the gentlest pressure of the incisors and dissolves into doughy mush in the mouth—is an entirely different foodstuff. Its only relationship to the bagel is that it is round, made of dough and has a hole.

Far be it from me to begrudge the benighted their blueberry bagels or McBagel breakfast combos. The situation is far more critical: Now that bagels are everywhere, it is almost impossible to get a real one.

The deracinated fake has driven out the real thing—and I live in New York City. Even here, it has been driven by ubiquity into near extinction. Perhaps we should be grateful that of the remaining signs for "bagel"—dough, round, hole—Toaster Bagel Shoppe at least has dough.

But then, so does a Pop Tart, the true forbearer of this Pillsbury concoction, except a Pop Tart bears a closer resemblance to a pastry than Toaster Bagel Shoppe does to a bagel—or a shop for that matter.

With TBS, as we'll dub it, we can say that the bagel has ceased to be a thing. It has been transformed into a mere idea, ripe for the high concepts of manufactured junk food, many of which come together in Toaster Bagel Shoppe.

First, it is machine food. Which is to say it is not only made by a machine but for one: the toaster. (Indeed, "toaster" is the only word in the product's name that corresponds to a real-world object.)

Second, it is a one-hand food, the holy grail of an industry seeking to feed a nation of multitaskers. The bagel's edge in the battle for share-of-stomach has been that it can be eaten with one hand, but it still took two to slice and schmear it. Until now.

The only thing about TBS that requires two hands is opening the package, otherwise leaving fivefingers free for multitasking.

Third, it is an ooze food, another in an endless variety of crispy, crunchy, flaky, doughy junk foods that excrete something salty, meaty, cheesy, creamy or fruity from inside.

In ooze foods, the ancient culinary trick of stuffing dough with fat and savories meets the ethos of consumer excess. One need only think of those Pizza Hut ads in which a glistening glob of cheese leaks from slices of stuffed crust pizza as if from a wound. And when ooze foods don't ooze fat, they tend to ooze sugar. Toaster Bagel Shoppe, with its cream-cheese-and-jelly filling, manages to ooze both.

At least no one has managed to turn lox into an idea. Not yet anyway.